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.
"I'm not interested in getting re-elected. I'm interested in getting this country back on sound financial footing," Mrs. Norton said.
Like Mr. Buck, Mrs. Norton has no legislative record, so it's hard to know whether she would emerge as a compromise seeker in the mold of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, or a keeper of the faith like Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. The biggest question about her conservative credentials lies in her support in 2005 for Colorado's Referendum C.
The measure, which allowed the state to keep revenue saved from new fiscal spending caps instead of refunding the money to taxpayers, was virulently opposed by the right but backed by Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. As Mr. Owens' lieutenant governor, Mrs. Norton campaigned on behalf of the measure, which passed.
Mrs. Norton was arguably in no position to thwart the governor on Referendum C, given that she was a political newcomer when she rode into office on the same ticket with the more established Mr. Owens. Still, that was enough to prompt an anti-Norton television ad by the conservative Declaration Alliance, which cited her work on behalf of the referendum to argue that she "helped pass the largest tax increase in Colorado history."
Those kinds of ads have helped level the playing field for Mr. Buck, who can't compete with Mrs. Norton in fundraising but has benefited from about $1 million in television spots run by independent conservative groups. Another ad from Americans for Job Security, which began last week, trumpets Mr. Buck's opposition to the federal debt and bailouts.
At their first one-on-one debate Tuesday in Colorado Springs, the candidates kept the intensity level high even though they rarely diverged on the issues. At one point, Mrs. Norton chided her opponent for what she called a 40 percent increase in his budget as district attorney. "If we can't trust him in Greeley, how can we trust him in Washington?" Mrs. Norton said.
Mr. Buck shot back with a reference to Referendum C, saying that he "wasn't the lieutenant governor who supported the largest tax increase in Colorado history."
A Denver Post/9News poll released June 20 found Mr. Buck ahead by a margin of 53 percent to 37 percent, with 10 percent undecided. The Norton campaign argued that the auto-dial poll was skewed because 57 percent of respondents were men.
The Norton camp released its own poll June 22 conducted by Public Opinion Strategies showing her leading Mr. Buck 39 percent to 33 percent, with 28 percent of voters undecided. A Magellan poll released June 10 showed Mr. Buck ahead 42 percent to 32 percent, with 26 percent undecided.
Still unknown is how the news of the reprimand will affect Mr. Buck's campaign. Mr. Buck said in an interview last week with KHOW-AM that he had declined to pursue a case against a gun shop in Aurora, which he viewed as weak, but Mr. Strickland at the time was making gun cases a priority after he became U.S. attorney in 1999, shortly after the Columbine High School shootings of 1999.
Mr. Buck said he told a defense attorney that he thought the government had a "weak case" and that the defendant should push for the charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor. A letter of reprimand was placed in his file, and he was ordered to take an ethics class. He left the job two months later.
The Buck campaign noted that the punishment wasn't more severe because his conduct was deemed "not intentional," according to the reprimand letter.
"He made a mistake, but he was trying to stand up for the taxpayers and Second Amendment rights," said Buck spokesman Owen Loftus.
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