DENVER | The pivotal Senate race in Colorado is locked in a dead heat as Republican Ken Buck struggles to keep the message on taxes and spending, while Democrat Michael Bennet pounds his opponent on social issues.
Democrats, in an effort to woo suburban female voters, have ramped up attacks on Mr. Buck's anti-abortion stance, a rape case he declined to prosecute as Weld County District Attorney, and his remarks that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.
"They're clobbering him [Buck] over actions that play into the narrative that he's hostile to women," said University of Colorado political-science professor Ken Bickers. "And it's working — women seem to be moving to Bennet. Men are staying with Buck."
The Democratic strategy has shifted the focus of the campaign away from economic issues, where Mr. Buck and Republicans have enjoyed success in hammering the Democrats on the stimulus bills, health care reform and the trilions of dollars being added to the national debt.
Still, there was good news for the Buck campaign this week. Figures released by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office show that Republicans are winning the early-turnout battle, with 17.1 percent of Republican voters already casting ballots versus 14.9 percent of Democrats.
Republicans also hold a slight voter-registration edge in Colorado, with most analysts agreeing that GOP voters are more enthusiastic this year than their Democratic counterparts.
Buck campaign manager John Swartout said the race would boil down to voter turnout. He noted that Republican Sen. Wayne Allard was 2 points behind Democratic challenger Tom Strickland in the 2002 Senate race, adding that Mr. Allard wound up winning by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent because pollsters underestimated Republican turnout.
"Pollsters are only as right as their turnout models," said Mr. Swartout. "We're seeing a lot of energy in our base, and I'm just not seeing that for Michael Bennet. If the numbers continue to go the way they are now, we're going to win."
Several polls released over the last week have the race tied or Mr. Buck leading by a point.
The Buck campaign released a television ad over the weekend featuring Mr. Buck's daughter Kaitlin, a student at Clemson University, that appeared aimed at reconnecting the candidate with female voters.
"Dad's always been there for us," says Kaitlin Buck in the ad. "He'll be there for Colorado, too."
Mr. Bennet's daughters are also a presence on the campaign trail. The incumbent Democratic senator often refers to himself as "the father of three little girls," and his campaign is running an ad that shows them taking an elderly woman to the polls in a wagon.
"The Bennet girls are working hard to get out the vote for their dad," says the ad.
The Denver airwaves are teeming with ads on the Bennet-Buck matchup, which has attracted the most out-of-state spending of any Senate race this year. The race is viewed as crucial for both parties as Republicans move to gain control of the Senate and Democrats struggle to keep their advantage.
In their final debate Saturday, Mr. Buck again was peppered with questions about his position on abortion. He acknowledged that he is pro-life without exceptions for rape and incest, prompting Mr. Bennet to ask him, "Who's going to go to jail when you criminalize abortion in the case of rape and incest?"
Mr. Buck repeatedly tried to deflect such questions, saying that Mr. Bennet had "once again tried to take this debate off-topic."
"We need to stay focused on the issues that voters in this state care about, and those issues are spending and jobs," said Mr. Buck, adding that in hundreds of meetings with voters, he had only been asked about abortion and gay marriage five or six times.
Democrats have also run ads against Mr. Buck over his decision against prosecuting a 2005 rape case, later saying he was worried the jury may decide the victim had a case of "buyer's remorse." At the debate, Mr. Bennet called the remark "horrible."
Mr. Buck countered that the ad was "deceitful." After his attorneys recommended against prosecuting the case, Mr. Buck referred the case to the Boulder County District Attorney, Mary Lacey, who affirmed the decision not to prosecute.
Mr. Buck called the case "abnormal" and stated that his office had been tough on prosecuting rapists, including five receiving life sentences.
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