By LYNN BARTELS
At their first televised gubernatorial debate, Republican Bob Beauprez turned to Democrat Bill Ritter and, in the folksy way Beauprez has of speaking, said there was no need to address him as "Congressman."
"We’re going to see a lot of each other in the next three months," Beauprez told Ritter. " ‘Bob’ works fine."
Democrats didn’t know whether to laugh or roll their eyes.
"Of course he doesn’t want to be called a congressman," said Ritter’s campaign spokesman, Evan Dreyer. "Bob Beauprez doesn’t want to remind people he’s in Congress … (that) he voted with President Bush 98 percent of the time."
Those who know Beauprez, a two-term congressman, say the informal "call me Bob" is the former banker and dairy farmer’s style.
But, on the following, both sides agree:
"It’s no fun to be a Republican right now," said GOP political analyst Katy Atkinson in Denver.
The war is going badly. The president’s approval ratings have plunged in Colorado and elsewhere while the national deficit has soared. And Congress seems unable to tackle immigration reform.
Political pundits are talking of this fall’s election in terms of cataclysmic weather: The perfect storm, the tsunami, the tidal wave that is going to roll over Republicans on Nov. 7.
"It’s a challenging and difficult environment for Republicans this year," pollster Lori Weigel said. "They’re running in sand. The Democratic candidates, they’re … coasting a little."
The national political climate and Beauprez’s miscues in Colorado have combined to drop the Republican candidate for governor in a Republican-leaning state 17 points behind the Democratic candidate, according to a Rocky Mountain News/CBS 4 poll published Friday.
Fifty percent of voters surveyed said they were likely to vote for Ritter, versus 33 percent for Beauprez. Eleven percent said they were undecided. The poll, conducted earlier this week, showed Ritter with a huge lead in the Denver metropolitan area, earning 56 percent support to Beauprez’s 32 percent.
Even more surprising, Ritter is leading in some of the state’s most conservative areas. He holds a 22-point lead over Beauprez on the eastern Plains and a 5-point lead in the Colorado Springs/Pueblo area.
Weigel said a wave of anti-Iraq war and anti-Washington sentiment is making things difficult for Beauprez, who has represented a suburban Denver district since 2002.
"The mood of the country is really driven by Iraq," said Weigel. "It’s a toxic stew for Republicans."
Beauprez has been hammered from the start of the race on issues ranging from his perceived waffling on state referendum on tax refunds to his choice last month of a running mate who linked gays to bestiality.
Beauprez’s been down this road before. In an e-mail to supporters last week, campaign manager John Marshall noted that Beauprez overcame double-digit deficits to win in both of his congressional campaigns.
Republicans still talk longingly about the election of 2002. Sept. 11 and the war on terror were still foremost in the minds of most Americans, and Republicans enjoyed the status of being considered much stronger on security issues.
Beauprez, who had been chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, faced former state Sen. Mike Feeley, a Democrat, in the newly created 7th District.
"What amazes me about Bob’s performance now is he ran such a perfect race against me in 2002," said Feeley, who is the treasurer for Ritter’s campaign. "He was on message. He was perfectly disciplined."
Beauprez won by just 121 votes, while the GOP scored heavily in-state and nationally.
This year’s governor’s race actually began in earnest last year, thanks to the fire-starter tax refund referendum, designed to help the state climb out of its budget crisis. Beauprez was still mulling where he stood on it when GOP gubernatorial candidate Marc Holtzman vigorously opposed the tax refund referendum and a companion measure.
When Beauprez finally opposed the two measures, he was labeled "Both Ways Bob" by Holtzman’s campaign manager, Dick Leggitt. It’s a label Beauprez has not been able to shake.
While Beauprez and Holtzman were battling, Democrats were wringing their hands over Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, fearing he was too conservative.
Democrats urged House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and others to jump into the race. No one did.
Pundits all along had said that while Ritter would have a tough time winning the primary, he would be formidable in the general election.
"Ritter’s a Democratic prosecutor with no voting record. He’s a pro-life Catholic. He’s religious where a lot of Democrats fall down on that issue," said GOP consultant Sean Tonner.
(Rocky Mountain News reporter Stuart Steers also contributed to this story.)
(Contact Lynn Bartels of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)