GOP Hopes to Pick Up Colorado Governor's Seat

Clinton watching closely to see if his '92 win in Rocky Mountain state will stay solid for '96

COLORADO, an important swing state in the Rocky Mountain West in national politics, is bracing for its most hard-fought governor's race in more than a decade.

Though Gov. Roy Romer (D) will be difficult to defeat in his bid for a third term, the Republicans feel they are well positioned to end 20 straight years of Democratic gubernatorial rule.

A trio of GOP candidates is vying for the right to take on the incumbent - including a millionaire oilman who promises to spend a gusher of money to unseat the governor. Thus political pros envision a campaign in which no one will be checking their guns at the door. GOP primaries will be held Aug. 9.

``It is going to be a fun summer,'' says Steve Burton, a Denver-based GOP strategist not allied with any of the candidates. ``I think it is going to be one of the most competitive governor's races in a decade.''

The race will draw its share of looks from the White House. Candidate Bill Clinton showed surprising strength in the mountain West in 1992. He was the first Democrat to carry Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico since Lyndon Johnson.

He was helped in Colorado by the strong showing of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who splintered the vote by capturing 23 percent of the electorate. Even so, the administration wants to keep a Democrat in the governor's mansion, particularly one it has worked well with in the past.

Negative signal

``If a moderate, Clinton-identified governor goes down in Colorado, it will send a very negative signal to the White House,'' says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster and political consultant.

For now, that is a long way from happening. Mr. Romer remains popular. His approval rating in most polls has been in the mid-50s or higher.Romer is well financed. The economy here is strong. The governor has been visible on many key issues, including economic development and school reform. Still, several decades in politics have given him a chance to make enemies. And, in Colorado, where the electorate always seems split - a Democratic governor, Republican-controlled state legislature, US Senators from different parties - no politician can simply relax at a Vail condo.

``The state definitely leans toward Romer, but it is still on the watch list,'' Mr. Ciruli says.

The frontrunner among the Republicans, largely because of the depth of his pockets, is Bruce Benson. The Denver oilman represents a growing phenomenon in American politics: a wealthy first-time office-seeker willing to spend his own money.

Mr. Benson has already carried out one of the most expensive TV campaigns in state history, portraying himself as someone who will institute business reforms in government. He promises to spend up to $5 million to defeat Romer in November.

A self-styled outsider, Benson bypassed the traditional party nominating process and instead appealed directly to voters in a populist petition drive. He is not really from outside the party, though: He is a former state GOP chairman and chaired then-President Bush's 1992 campaign in Colorado.

His main rivals are Mike Bird, a state senator from Colorado Springs, and Dick Sargent, an investment adviser from Golden. Mr. Bird, who also teaches economics at Colorado College, touts his 20-years experience in politics. A respected lawmaker, he is considered smart but low-key. Some analysts question whether he has the charisma and money to beat Romer. Mr. Sargent, who served 26 years in the Marines, is a tough campaigner and debater. He has lost two previous campaigns for state treasurer, though. Even so, the candidate thinks those experiences have given him a strong rural base.

The money factor

Most analysts say Benson, because of his resources, would give Romer the best run in the fall. He won't just be handed the GOP nod, though. He can't appear to be buying the nomination and must avoid carrying the outsider pitch too far. ``It remains to be seen if the Republicans will turn on him,'' says Paul Talmey, a Boulder-based pollster.

Some wonder how he will handle the scrutiny and rigors of a campaign, given his lack of experience. His GOP foes took aim at him in a recent debate, accusing him of repackaging their ideas on crime and flip-flopping in his views of Ross Perot. Benson is trying to stay above the fray, focusing his barbs on Romer.

On the issues, the GOP contenders reflect more commonality than contention. They all support term limits, tougher judges, welfare reform, school choice, and curtailing federal rules over local government. The question is, after the Aug. 9 primary when only one is left, whether they will be able to unite to defeat Romer.

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