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Did Cheney Go Too Negative Too Soon?
PHOTO: Liz Cheney and Mike Enzi

This week Liz Cheney started her Wyoming Senate bid with what some might consider an insult. Cheney, a Republican, called her GOP rival, Sen. Mike Enzi, "just confused" at her very first campaign event.

She was referring to Enzi's contention that she had promised him not to run if he did.

An obviously surprised Enzi said after her announcement Tuesday, "I thought we were friends."

The dig is a clear hit at his age: Enzi is 69 while Cheney is 46. But in a Republican vs. Republican match-up, is it the right move to go mean at the starting line?

Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with family ties in the state, says it's the wrong move.

"Going after him and tearing him down will actually splash mud back onto Liz Cheney," Bonjean said in an interview with ABC News. "It's bad form and it's bad politics in a state like Wyoming to go after a senator with high approval ratings in a way that is tearing him down."

Bonjean added, "You want to engage the hug-the-opposition strategy."

By that, Bonjean means Cheney should have employed what some have called the "gold watch strategy," praising your fellow Republican and hoping they get the hint and move on to greener pastures.

Bonjean says she should have said something more like this, "'We love Senator Enzi, he's done a great job, but it's time for a new chapter. We appreciate his leadership and thank him for it, but it's time for him to move along so that there can be new leadership for the new problems we are facing.'"

Cheney's opening salvo was a sudden departure from her announcement video in which she did not specifically mention Enzi at all. Instead her main focus was on the president and how she would be a strong voice of opposition. She did manage a veiled shot at Enzi and his reputation for negotiating, saying, "Instead of cutting deals with the president's liberal allies, we should be opposing them every step of the way."

James King, chairman of the political science department at the University of Wyoming, pointed out that since Cheney is not challenging someone who is an "unpopular incumbent," she does need to "do something to distinguish herself" and that's exactly what she's doing.

"She has to make a contrast somehow and obviously she has decided on age and thinking that Wyoming wants someone more confrontational with the Obama administration," King said.

Cheney's attempt to point out the generational differences is not without precedent. Newark mayor Cory Booker announced his decision to run for the U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey before the 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg had announced his own intentions.

The move didn't immediately push Lautenberg out, but it did anger him. He told reporters that Booker deserved a "spanking" for his behavior. Lautenberg did eventually announce plans to retire and then in June passed away. Those hard feelings didn't go away; his family backed Democratic rival Rep. Frank Pallone earlier this month.

Other candidates have found different ways to try and nudge older incumbents out of a race. In 1996, Slate reported that Strom Thurmond's Senate challenger in South Carolina, Democrat Elliot Close, aired an ad called "Legacy," praising the 95-year-old senator and aiming to give voters permission to vote Thurmond out in favor of a younger candidate. It didn't work, and Thurmond won.

Almost as soon as Cheney announced her intentions on Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee made it clear it would be backing Enzi, supporting the incumbent as it traditionally does and noting it would provide back up to Enzi if necessary.

Brian Walsh, former spokesperson for the NRSC and current GOP strategist, said Cheney has to be "very careful" when it comes to criticizing Enzi and using "code words" as she did this week.

"You have to be careful, especially in a small state where everyone knows each other," Walsh said. "Senator Enzi is still well-liked in Wyoming, and in a small state if the vast majority of voters have met and feel like they know him, it becomes much more personal."

Wyoming is the least populous state in the nation with about 576,000 residents. According to the Wyoming Secretary of State's office, as of this month there are 166,643 Republicans and 53,301 Democrats in the state; 36,491 voters are registered as unaffiliated or as Libertarian or Constitution Party members.

Wyoming also allows voters to change their party registration on Election Day, which would allow Democrats to cross over and vote for Enzi, possibly just to be able to vote against a member of the Cheney family.

Cheney, with the help of her famous father, will no doubt be a formidable fundraiser, a potential problem for Enzi who has admitted his weakness raising money. In the three previous races, where he has sailed to victory, he has only spent a total of $4.2 million.

But, in a state so spread out, with such small urban centers, money isn't everything and the University of Wyoming's King warned that blanketing the airwaves runs the risk of alienating voters or "overexposure."

"There is that risk if you become consistently and frequently negative you create in essence a sympathy vote," King said. "You can't go about advertising with a lot of money in Wyoming the same way you would in a lot of states."

Cheney moved to Wyoming last year and has been making the rounds at GOP dinners and fundraisers. Her father was the state's at-large congressman and her family has called the state home for generations, but she has spent most of her adulthood in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. She was clearly hoping with her movements in the state and now with her candidacy that it would be enough to push Enzi into retirement.

But, it doesn't look as if Enzi will go quietly. Thursday he released a statement saying in clear terms that he intends to run for reelection.

"Wyoming people don't like long campaigns," Enzi said foreshadowing what is likely to be a bloody GOP primary fight. "When the time comes, I am confident the people of Wyoming will vote for my results, dedication, legislative experience and hard work for the state."

He also thanked supporters for the "many calls and emails my family and I have received in the last few days."

"So many people are telling us they remain committed to me and will do whatever they can to see that I can continue to faithfully represent them," he wrote, adding that he will "continue to do what is right," which includes treating "others as they expect to be treated."

This story has been updated since it was first posted. Originally it described Strom Thurmond's opponent Elliot Close as a Republican, he was a Democrat.

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