Monday, May 3, 2004

DENVER — On the surface, Bob Schaffer would seem to have everything Republicans could hope for in a Senate candidate.

A state senator at the age of 24, Mr. Schaffer had crafted a reputation as a staunch conservative and leader on education reform even before winning a U.S. House seat in 1996. Elected president of his House class, he left a safe seat after three terms to honor his term-limits pledge, cementing his reputation for integrity.

There’s just one problem: He’s not rich and famous, unlike brewing magnate Pete Coors, his rival in the Aug. 10 Republican primary.

As a result, the Colorado GOP has an internal feud on its hands in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who announced in March that he would not seek re-election.

Support for the candidates has split the party between its conservative wing, which backs Mr. Schaffer, and its “electable” wing, which holds that Mr. Coors has a better chance to defeat Attorney General Ken Salazar, the likely Democratic nominee.

Mr. Coors announced his candidacy April 13 after a behind-the-scenes scramble by party leaders to find a candidate they considered more electable than Mr. Schaffer, who had entered the race a month earlier. Gov. Bill Owens then pulled his endorsement from Mr. Schaffer to back Mr. Coors, creating some hard feelings among Schaffer supporters.

Mr. Schaffer chided his critics last week in a speech to Republican lawmakers, saying that the values of the party aren’t necessarily reflected by candidates with “the right genetics and a big-enough checkbook.”

Others say the issue is not just Mr. Coors’ money and name recognition: It’s also Mr. Schaffer. While both candidates are viewed as conservatives and hold similar views on most issues, Mr. Schaffer is seen by some as “far right,” which could cost him support among unaffiliated voters.

“I think what’s happened is that you have a lot of people in the Republican Party who were nervous about a Bob Schaffer candidacy,” said John Straayer, political science professor at Colorado State University. “He’s manufactured an image of himself as being on the far-right fringe, not just on fiscal issues, but he’s also carrying a good deal of the religious right agenda with him.”

A poll released Tuesday by the Rocky Mountain News and a local TV station showed that Mr. Salazar would defeat either Republican if the election were held now, but there was a silver lining for the Schaffer campaign: Mr. Salazar would top Mr. Schaffer by a 48 percent to 37 percent margin, but would defeat Mr. Coors by 52 percent to 36 percent.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for Bob, and that’s what’s important,” said Schaffer spokeswoman Elizabeth Blackney.

The candidates have similar political positions, but strikingly different campaign personas: Mr. Schaffer, at 41, the baby-faced policy wonk and experienced legislator; Mr. Coors, 57, the tall, rangy Fortune 500 chief executive officer and philanthropist.

Cinamon Watson, spokeswoman for Mr. Coors, predicted the race would boil down to a contest between the candidates’ perspectives and experience, not their positions.

“If you did an issues matrix, I think you would see a lot of similarities between Bob Schaffer and Pete Coors,” she said. “This primary is going to be about which candidate is the most electable and will serve Colorado best in the Senate.”

And then there’s the money. With campaign-finance laws keeping tight tabs on the size of individual contributions, a candidate with his own money to spend becomes an instant contender. Mr. Coors, who has taken unpaid leave from his $1 million-a-year position as chief executive officer of the Adolph Coors Co., hails from a family with an estimated worth in the hundreds of millions.

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