Denver — The United States Senate race in Colorado features two contenders whose ideological differences are as clear and sharp as Venetian glass. On one side is Rep. Ken Kramer -- a conservative Republican who backs a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and stresses unflagging support for a ``star wars'' missile-defense system. On the other is Rep. Tim Wirth -- a generally liberal Democrat who emphasizes arms control, clean air and water, and jobs.
It is the kind of matchup that some pundits say could be a precursor to the 1988 presidential campaign, if a Reagan-style Republican and a neoliberal Democrat were to emerge as the parties' standard-bearers. It is also a contest being closely watched for signs of the Democrats' ability to resist rising GOP strength in the West.
On the surface the race here would seem tailor-made for the Republicans. Colorado is a conservative-to-moderate state where the GOP maintains an iron grip on both houses of the legislature. It has also voted only once for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1952.
Yet in Colorado, as in much of the West, politics is rarely so predictable. For one thing, the state is almost evenly splintered among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Nor do independent-minded Coloradans always vote along neat party or liberal-conservative lines.
This is one reason the state has remained a Republican stronghold at the state and presidential level while electing Democrats like Gov. Richard Lamm, who is stepping down this year, and a split congressional delegation: It includes conservative Sen. William Armstrong (R) and neoliberal Sen. Gary Hart (D), whose seat the contenders are vying for.
Voters are almost evenly divided in this race. Indeed, with less than two weeks to go to election day, the Senate contest is turning out to be one of the closest in the country, in addition to being one of the most crucial in determining who will control the chamber after Nov. 4.
``It's a coin toss,'' says Floyd Ciruli, a political consultant here. ``The candidates move up and down in the polls depending on who is on TV and who has grabbed the latest fancy issue.''
Both camps are trying to portray the other candidate as a fringe politician out of step with Colorado voters. At the same time, they have maneuvered their own candidate somewhat more toward the middle.
Mr. Wirth has been forced to deal with a more mixed electorate. The Boulder congressman, whose district includes both political extremes, has managed at times to temper his liberal Washington voting record with a more moderate stance in Colorado. His strategists like to point out that he enjoys wide support among Republicans and independents, including some Denver business leaders.
Mr. Kramer, for his part, is an eight-year congressman from Colorado Springs, a conservative district. He has not had to be so cautious with comments. In his years in the legislature, Kramer aligned himself with the ``House crazies,'' an unbending conservative group.
In the Senate race, however, he has adopted a more low-key image. To counter the telegenic polish of his self-assured and articulate opponent, Kramer has cast himself as an average hard-working Joe. This was reflected in a series of commercials stressing ``not slick, just good,'' as well as some campaign literature that included the recipe for his ``famous chili.''
``It's basically the difference between a work horse and a show horse,'' says Kramer's campaign manager, Rodger Bailey.
For all their differences, the campaign has not produced the liberal-conservative clash on issues that many had hoped. Many of the TV commercials have been negative, which apparently has caused a high degree of volatility among voters.
``There is an absolute lack of issue clarity,'' says Jim Monaghan, a Denver political consultant with ties to state Democrats. ``I think the race will turn on who can go back to the basics and communicate the best.''
A sluggish state economy is emerging as a key campaign issue. Wirth has been pushing the jobs issue the hardest. But most pundits don't see either candidate having much advantage here.
In campaign spending, Wirth retains a slight overall edge, but Kramer, aided by a visit by President Reagan last month, has raised more money recently. The President plans to visit the state again Oct. 30.
The Wirth campaign has put heavy emphasis on organization. So far, its volunteers have knocked on 250,000 doors around the state. ``If it comes down to an even race, we hope organization will put us over the top,'' Wirth aide Jay Marlin says.