- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

DENVER | There’s a “tea party” candidate running for governor in Colorado this fall, but with three weeks to go in the campaign, it’s not entirely clear who it is.

Over the summer, the overwhelming choice of the conservative grass-roots movement was Republican nominee Dan Maes, who won an upset victory in the Aug. 8 GOP primary. Since then, however, the tea partiers - who are a growing political force in this state - have grown increasingly sweet on third-party candidate Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman and failed presidential candidate best known for his outspoken views on illegal immigration.

The Tancredo campaign released a list last week of more than 30 tea party, “9-12” and other grass-roots conservative activists who have endorsed the candidate. The reason? His recent surge in the polls - he now leads Mr. Maes by double digits - has convinced them that he’s the conservative candidate with the best chance of beating Democratic front-runner John Hickenlooper.

“Based on polling trends and the direction the governor’s race has taken over the past several weeks, we firmly believe that candidate Tom Tancredo represents Colorado’s best choice in this race,” said Bob Marshall, secretary of Hear Us Now, which organized this year’s Denver Tax Day tea parties.

Lu Ann Busse, chairwoman of the 9-12 Project Colorado Coalition, said the momentum within the movement favors the Tancredo candidacy. She pointed to a mid-September internal poll showing that Colorado grass-roots conservatives were about evenly split between Mr. Maes and Mr. Tancredo.

“Certainly the trend is that more people are moving toward Tancredo,” said Mrs. Busse, who’s making it a point to remain neutral in the campaign.

The 9-12 movement is the brainchild of conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck and refers, according to organizers, to the national unity and surge of patriotism the country experienced in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The momentum shift comes just in time for the Tancredo campaign, given that early voting in Colorado starts Oct. 18. Mail-in ballots are slated to be sent to voters Tuesday.

“We’ve gone from one tea-party event to another. We don’t miss a one, even though Tom has had to brace himself sometimes, ” said Tancredo campaign manager Bay Buchanan. “They were supporting Maes, but now they’re moving their support to Tancredo.”

Things weren’t always so chummy between Mr. Tancredo and the conservative grass roots. When he threatened to run a third-party campaign in July unless Mr. Maes dropped out of the race, tea-party leaders were furious, pointing out that Mr. Tancredo had urged them last year to work within the GOP instead of forming a third party.

Leaders of 21 groups sent him an open letter urging him to stay out of the contest and work with the Republican Party to defeat Mr. Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver and one of the state’s best-known Democrats.

Colorado has emerged as one of the nation’s premier purple states. It voted for Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, but backed Democrat Barack Obama four years later. Facing what was expected to be a tough re-election fight, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. announced in January he would not run for a second term.

Mr. Tancredo had other strikes against him. After serving five terms in Congress and running for president, he was considered a career politician and therefore unacceptable to many tea-party activists. His credentials as a conservative also were called into question over his vote in favor of funding the Wall Street bailout and the auto-industry bailout a year later, both of which were anathema to the movement.

At the same time, however, Mr. Maes has been sinking fast in the polls after his surprise win over scandal-plagued former Rep. Scott McInnis in the August Republican primary. Since then, the relatively inexperienced nominee has been losing credibility with Republican voters over revelations of his own campaign ethics woes and accusations of resume-padding.

“They were angry, but when they found out their guy wasn’t who he said he was, they’ve been coming over,” said Mrs. Buchanan.

Meanwhile, a wave of prominent Colorado Republicans had announced they would cross party lines and vote for Mr. Tancredo. Mr. Tancredo’s dramatic rise in the polls - he gained about five points per week in September - convinced many grass-roots voters to back the horse with the best chance of winning.

So far, the Hickenlooper campaign hasn’t paid much attention to Mr. Tancredo’s insurgent candidacy, but as the third-party candidate inches closer, that may change.

“There’s not been any negative advertising against [Tancredo],” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It’ll have to come from independents - Hickenlooper can’t have his hands on it. But if he gets close enough, the Democratic opposition and independent-expenditure committees will have to jump in.”

A Rasmussen Reports poll released Oct. 4 showed Mr. Hickenlooper still leading with 43 percent of the vote, but Mr. Tancredo was a clear second with 35 percent of the vote, his best showing of the campaign. Mr. Maes trails with 16 percent.

“It’s happened in stages,” Mrs. Busse said. “Now the latest wave is people who think [Mr. Tancredo] can beat Hickenlooper. The one thing we all agree on is that we don’t want Hickenlooper to be governor of Colorado.”

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