As anyone who has ever run against Bob Schaffer knows, it's only a matter of time before the "gotcha" moment. It's that instant right after Mr. Schaffer maneuvers his opponent into making what appears to be a harmless statement. Like four years ago, during a debate against Pete Coors in the Republican Senate primary, when Mr. Schaffer repeatedly cited a man named Paul Martin.
Finally, an exasperated Mr. Coors demanded, "Who's Paul Martin?"
The answer, as Mr. Schaffer quickly pointed out, was that Mr. Martin was the prime minister of Canada. Suddenly, Mr. Schaffer looked like an expert on foreign affairs while Mr. Coors came across as a guy who had never left the state. Gotcha.
Mr. Schaffer, 46, lost that election, but he hasn't changed his strategy. If anything, the gotcha moments are flying faster and thicker than ever in this year's tight Senate race against Democratic Rep. Mark Udall, one of up to 10 contests Democrats are watching closely as they push for a filibuster-proof majority.
Mr. Udall, 58, has never trailed in the race, but his early double-digit lead has slipped in recent polls. The latest Denver Post poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research and released Sunday, showed Mr. Udall leading Mr. Schaffer by 43 percent to 38 percent.
Another 20 percent are undecided. A third-party candidate, the Green Party's Bob Kinsey, was polling at 4 percent of the vote.
The same poll found the presidential race even tighter, with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain tied at 44 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. Democrats hold a razor-thin 51-49 majority in the Senate and have a shot at getting up to the 60 seats they need to avoid filibusters.
If Mr. Schaffer can't make up that ground with relentless trap-springing and opposition research, it won't be for lack of trying. The latest example came last week, when he announced that he supported a tax holiday for U.S. firms overseas.
Mr. Udall, who has long hammered at Mr. Schaffer for voting for tax cuts for oil companies, took the bait, blasting his opponent for favoring yet another tax break for big corporations.
Uh-oh. It turned out that Mr. Udall backed that same idea four years ago when he came out in favor of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. The Udall campaign tried to recover by saying that the congressman had tried to strip that particular provision out of the bill.
Again, big mistake. The Schaffer campaign promptly whipped out Mr. Udall's floor statement on the bill, in which the congressman specifically lauded the tax-holiday provision.
"I will vote for [the act] because it includes provisions to encourage American corporations doing business abroad to repatriate their overseas earnings for investment here at home," Mr. Udall said in the 2004 floor statement.
The difference is that Mr. Schaffer's proposal is a prescription for the current economic crisis, said Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo.
"I'd like to see Bob Schaffer tell a Colorado family that's about to lose their home that his prescription is to give money to companies working offshore," Ms. Trujillo said.
Not that the Udall camp hasn't had its moments. In May, for example, the Schaffer campaign released a televised ad showing a mountain range and identifying it as Pike's Peak near Colorado Springs. It turned out to be the Denali in Alaska.
What makes Mr. Schaffer unique is the setup, the way he lures his unwitting opponents into making assertions that he knows he can refute immediately. Asked to comment, Mr. Schaffer demurred.
"You make it sound like something remarkable, but I'm just stating the facts," he said. "For most politicians, these wouldn't be gotcha moments, but they are for Mark Udall."
The Udall campaign accused Mr. Schaffer of trying to dodge the issues. "I think Bob's trying to distract people from the fact that he's so out of touch that the best he can do is play games," Ms. Trujillo said.
Indeed, there are risks involved with Mr. Schaffer's strategy. While he has succeeded in catching Mr. Udall off-guard on a number of occasions, the Republican has put himself at risk of alienating voters by appearing unduly strident or combative next to the affable Democrat.
"Udall, while obviously liberal, is a pleasant person. He comes across as pleasant, and you can go a long way in life with a good smile and a pleasing personality," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
Mr. Schaffer set the tone early in the campaign at a July 14 debate sponsored by KUSA-TV, the local NBC affiliate. Asked to justify U.S. involvement in Iraq, Mr. Schaffer read a list of reasons defending the war, then asked those who agreed to raise their hands.
He then noted that nobody on Mr. Udall's side of the aisle had done so, and announced, "What I just read was Mark Udall's resolution supporting a declaration of war in Iraq."
Then there was the July 28 debate sponsored by KDVR-TV, the local Fox affiliate, in which Mr. Schaffer predicted House Democrats would vote to adjourn instead of taking up an energy bill. Mr. Udall insisted that he would vote to stay in session.
Three days later, however, Mr. Udall, bedeviled by a busy campaign schedule, missed the vote by minutes, and the adjournment passed 213-212, meaning that his vote would have kept the House in session.
It wasn't long before the National Republican Senatorial Committee had launched ads accusing Mr. Udall of breaking his promise and missing "a critical vote that could have led to lower gas prices."
Mr. Schaffer again was in full pounce mode at the Sept. 28 candidates debate on "Meet the Press." During a discussion on the financial crisis, Mr. Udall, as expected, criticized Mr. Schaffer for favoring less government regulation.
Mr. Schaffer responded by pulling out three 2005 House bills that would have increased restrictions on federal home-loan banks Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then noted that Mr. Udall had opposed all three.
Mr. Udall replied that Mr. Schaffer could have taken action during his tenure in Congress when Republicans held the majority. Mr. Schaffer served three terms in the House, ending in 2002. Mr. Udall was elected in 1998.
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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