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Still pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming are state Republicans, who suddenly have a real shot at the once-impregnable Salazar seat. The Republican Party is quickly accruing its own crowded primary field, a Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs affair led by former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, whose sister is married to veteran Republican political operative Charlie Black.

Mrs. Norton won the straw poll with 109 votes at the state Republican Party’s retreat last month at the Keystone Resort. Close behind her were Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and Aurora City Council member Ryan Frazier, with 94 votes each.

Election experience aside, the biggest challenge in the Bennet-Romanoff matchup may be finding significant distinctions between the candidates. They are nearly the same age — Mr. Bennet is 45, Mr. Romanoff is 43 — and both position themselves as non-ideological, pragmatic problem-solvers. Both have the same elite East Coast academic credentials — Mr. Bennet holds a law degree from Yale, Mr. Romanoff has degrees from both Yale and Harvard — not normally found among Colorado lawmakers.

Neither can credibly wear cowboy boots, which could prove troublesome in the general election. Despite Colorado’s recent tilt to the left, the Democratic Party’s biggest success stories over the past two decades, including those of Mr. Salazar, Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. Roy Romer, were closely identified with the rural West or could trace their Western roots back generations.

At the Sept. 26 Oktoberfest, Democrat Harisha Bastiampillai said he was still weighing the merits of the candidates.

“There are people who don’t feel like Bennet is a dynamic enough campaigner,” he said. “But I know Bennet is highly regarded as an intellectual and did a great job with [the public schools]. Romanoff is more identified with Colorado.”

Democrat Bob Thomas, a retired military officer, said he worried at first that Mr. Romanoff’s candidacy would hurt the party’s prospects.

“At first I was thinking, ‘We don’t need this, we need unity,’” Mr. Thomas said. “But now I think it’ll be healthy. As Democrats, we can’t lose with either one.”