Thursday, June 24, 2004

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. — Colorado Republican Senate hopeful Pete Coors yesterday criticized the legal drinking age, chiding the federal government for coercing states into raising the age limit from 18 to 21.

“We got along fine for years with the 18-year-old drinking age,” the former CEO of the Coors Brewing Co. told an audience of about 200 people at a candidates’ debate here. “We’re criminalizing our young people.”

His remarks came in response to a question from his primary rival, former Rep. Bob Schaffer, at a Republican Senate breakfast forum sponsored by the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club.

Both candidates are seeking the Republican nomination to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who is retiring. The winner of the Aug. 10 primary is likely to face Democratic state Attorney General Ken Salazar in a pivotal race that could decide control of the Senate.

Mr. Schaffer cited a quote from a 1997 USA Today article in which Mr. Coors said that lowering the drinking age might help teenagers learn to drink responsibly. Mr. Coors currently is taking a leave of absence fromhis position at Coors, of Golden, Colo.

Mr. Coors said he resented the federal government’s intrusion in what he sees as a state issue. During the 1980s, the federal Transportation Department threatened to withhold highway funds unless legislatures raised the drinking age in their states to 21.

“I haven’t said that 18 is a better age. I’m saying we should reopen the debate and let the citizens decide, without bureaucratic intervention,” Mr. Coors said. “People mature at different ages. You should be just as horrified at your daughter drinking at 18 as at 21 if she’s not ready.”

The two candidates have been described as virtually identical, taking conservative stands on most high-profile issues, but Mr. Schaffer pinpointed the drinking-age issue as one on which they disagree.

Asked whether the state should decide its drinking age without federal interference, Mr. Schaffer said, “The state did decide. There are several examples of where the federal government has tried to coerce Colorado into doing something and Colorado regularly ignores them.”

“As a matter of policy, I think lowering the drinking age is a terrible idea,” Mr. Schaffer said.

Later in the debate, Mr. Coors swung back at Mr. Schaffer by asking whether he had ever voted to raise taxes. Mr. Schaffer, a former state senator and three-term congressman, acknowledged that he had voted to raise “gas taxes and other taxes and fee increases” in the state legislature, but countered that he was “the only tax-cutter in this race.”

Mr. Coors continued to contrast his years of business experience with Mr. Schaffer’s career in politics. “I understand water issues — that’s what we do, we turn water into beer,” he said. “I understand labor issues, I understand regulatory issues. … I’m not running for the U.S. Senate for me. I don’t need a job, actually.”

Mr. Schaffer, meanwhile, said his political experience made him the candidate most likely to win in November. “I’m going to beat Ken Salazar because I know the enemy,” he said.

Polls show Mr. Schaffer holding a narrow lead. He won the party’s endorsement by taking more than 60 percent of the vote at the state Republican convention earlier this month, but Mr. Coors has dominated fund raising, receiving more than $1 million and twice as much as his rival.

Republican political and business leaders at the debate yesterday weren’t shocked by Mr. Coors’ criticism of the drinking age, although some suggested that he might be less than objective about the issue.

“I’m sympathetic to his view that the policy should have originated in Colorado, but it did seem self-serving,” said state treasurer Mike Coffman, who’s supporting Mr. Schaffer.

Joe Larkin, a club member, said he favored lowering the drinking age. “If you’re old enough to go to war, you ought to be able to have a drink if you want,” he said.

Fred Mould, an Arapahoe County district captain, said he was bothered by some Coors beer commercials, an issue that has dogged the Coors campaign.

“One problem I have with Coors is that I think it targets teenagers, and I also have a problem with the 18-year-old drinking age,” he said.

“If you’re in the military, great, you can drink on base” he said.

Several Republicans said they were torn between their antipathy to federal mandates and their disapproval of underage drinking. “I disagree with the lower drinking age, but I agree with his point on states’ rights,” Justin Everett said.

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