- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

DENVER — Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar announced yesterday he would seek the Democratic nomination for the Senate, becoming the early front-runner in the hunt to replace retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Mr. Salazar’s candidacy prompted two other Democrats, Rep. Mark Udall and millionaire businessman Rutt Bridges, to bow out of the race and back the state’s top prosecutor. At least four Republicans are considering bids, although none has yet announced.

The flurry of activity came one day after Republican Gov. Bill Owens took himself out of the running, citing his obligations to his family and the state. Analysts said that the governor’s decision gives Democrats the advantage for what was considered a safe Republican seat as recently as one week ago.

“This is our A team versus their B team. Their proven big players took a pass,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Chris Gates. “All the polling data shows that Bill Owens and Ben Nighthorse Campbell are their heavyweights, their proven winners. What we have left is clearly their B team.”

Republican Party Chairman Ted Halaby said that Mr. Owens’ decision came as a setback to the party’s chances of retaining the seat. The Colorado Senate seat is considered crucial to the GOP’s ability to retain its majority in the Senate, which is now 51-48.

“Obviously, we were all strongly supporting Bill Owens, but now we have some very strong candidates waiting in the wings,” said Mr. Halaby. “It’s going to be a horse race, no question.”

The leading Republican candidates are former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer, who has formed an exploratory committee, and Reps. Bob Beauprez, Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo. They are expected to make their decisions within the next week.

A former water lawyer, Mr. Salazar, 50, won two terms as attorney general after serving as chief counsel to Democratic former Gov. Roy Romer. Regarded as a centrist Democrat, he referred to his Hispanic heritage during his announcement yesterday at the state Capitol, saying that he can trace his Western ancestry back four centuries.

“Today, I want to help the people of Colorado and our country achieve the same American dream that I have been able to live,” said Mr. Salazar.

State Democrats were gleeful at their sudden turn of fortunes in a race that had been considered a Republican lock. First Mr. Campbell, a prohibitive favorite to win a third term, shocked politicians by withdrawing from the race last week, citing health concerns, and then Mr. Owens, who is separated from his wife, declined to enter the race.

“With Salazar and with no Owens, this becomes a winnable race for state Democrats,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “Salazar is the Owens of the Democratic Party, and there’s no one else as big as Owens on the Republican side.”

Colorado Republicans can always take comfort in their voter-registration edge, which has grown steadily over the past decade. As of last month, the GOP accounted for 37 percent of registered voters, while unaffiliated voters made up 32 percent and Democrats 30 percent, according to Scott Russell, state GOP political director.

State Republicans dominate Colorado politics, with the GOP holding both Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats, four of five state offices and both houses of the General Assembly.

Mr. Owens has recently made favorable comments about Mr. Beauprez, giving rise to speculation that he favors his candidacy. A banker with a considerable personal fortune, Mr. Beauprez is also the least experienced of the prospective Republican candidates, having served one year in Congress, a term he won by just 121 votes.

Mr. Beauprez plans to make an announcement early next week, said his spokesman, Jordan Stoick.

A nationally known advocate for tighter borders, Mr. Tancredo may be the best-known candidate in the GOP field, but he is also regarded as the White House’s least-favorite Republican, thanks to his pointed criticism of the Bush immigration proposal.

Mr. Tancredo will make his announcement Tuesday, said his spokesman, Carlos Espinosa, after discussing the matter further with his family.

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