DENVER | In what has been dubbed the “Year of the Republican Woman,” Jane Norton is in danger of becoming the exception to the rule.
After months as the prohibitive front-runner in Colorado’s Republican Senate primary race, the former lieutenant governor has taken an unexpected dive in the polls. With the election less than two months away, her lesser-known GOP rival, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, leads her by double digits in two recent surveys.
There’s no clear reason - Mrs. Norton hasn’t committed any notable errors, no “chickens for checkups” gaffes like the one that felled Republican candidate Sue Lowden in Nevada - but there is a pervading sense that Mr. Buck, a favorite of the anti-spending “tea party” movement, has emerged as the choice of the party’s surging conservative wing.
The pattern has become familiar in GOP primary fights this year, with “establishment” candidates such as Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah and Mrs. Lowden all pushed aside by more conservative rivals.
In a year in which much of the energy in Republican ranks is coming from conservative and tea party activists, Mr. Buck’s perceived edge on the issues may be enough to trump Mrs. Norton’s enormous financial advantage, better connections and slicker campaign.
“I think this is probably a reflection of his momentum,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “The Republican Party is strongly conservative in this state, and he’s really become the candidate of many of the conservative activists.”
“Ken Buck is a solid conservative district attorney …,” said Erick Erickson of the conservative blog Red State Update and a major booster of Mr. Buck over Mrs. Norton. “He’s right on the issues, won’t go squishy on immigration, and will fight for freedom.”
Mr. Buck got a taste of life as a front-runner last week when reports surfaced about a reprimand he received while working for U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland in 2001. Mr. Buck has acknowledged he was wrong - he belittled the government’s case on a gun-shop violation to the defense - although his supporters argue that he was caught up in the political agenda of Mr. Strickland, a Democrat who left office to run for Senate in 2002.
The Norton camp seized on the issue this week with a negative radio ad calling Mr. Buck “a government lawyer who doesn’t follow the rules.”
Both Republicans are vying for the chance to run against Sen. Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat who is facing his own primary challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Polls have shown Mr. Bennet leading Mr. Romanoff comfortably, but trailing both Republicans in hypothetical general election matchups.
But the Democratic race has been shaken by former President Bill Clinton’s strong endorsement this week of Mr. Romanoff, while the Obama White House and national Democrats are sticking with Mr. Bennet. Colorado’s Aug. 10 primary thus may feature two of the more closely watched races of the midterm season.
Mrs. Norton’s actions at a tea party forum last weekend don’t suggest that she is a candidate whose conservative credentials are in question.
She attacks out-of-control government spending, earmarks and high taxes. She wants to repeal “Obamacare.” She defends American exceptionalism without prompting and questions whether President Obama believes in the concept of national sovereignty. She calls herself “pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-marriage and pro-freedom.”
She receives warm applause from the 5280/Mile-High Patriots, but the doubts persist. One woman told Mrs. Norton that she’s “leery of women candidates” because, even though they may sound conservative, once elected they “tend to be rather middling.”
Mrs. Norton has tried to assuage those fears by noting that she’s a third-generation Coloradan who’s “going to be here regardless,” and that a long Senate career isn’t her focus.