Tancredo an Illegal Immigrant? Sparks Fly Between Colorado's Conservatives Candidates

In Senate Debate, Sen. Bennet Struggles to Establish His Moderate Credentials

ByHuma Khan
October 14, 2010, 4:33 PM

Oct. 15, 2010— -- When Barack Obama won Colorado in the 2008 election, many instantly declared it a new blue state. All but two Republicans running for Congress lost to Democrats and it was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had taken the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.

But two years later, the state is far from a Democratic stronghold. Democrats are struggling to hold on to their seats as they face the same public ire that Republicans did two years ago.

2010 Election Maps: Follow the Senate, House and Governors' Races

Incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, who replaced Ken Salazar last year, is in an uphill battle against Republican candidate and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck.

In a debate moderated by ABC News' Jake Tapper and KMGH anchor Mike Landess, Bennet struggled to distance himself from the Obama administration, painting himself as a moderate as Buck accused him of running away from his record.

Watch the full debates here.

"I have been more likely to vote with the other party than any other member of the congressional delegation, whether they're Democratic or whether they're Republican," said Bennet. "And on some critical issues for Colorado, I fought the administration."

Buck, on the other hand, fought back against the argument that he's reversed his position, including on health care.

"I havent reversed positions, but I have talked about issues in different ways," Buck said today. "Sometimes it's a matter of learning more about issues, sometimes it's a matter of using different language to try to explain the same situation."

Bennett and Buck are locked in a tight race that will come down to who can win over more independent voters who comprise a large chunk of the state's electorate.

Democrats are having a hard time edging up in polls not only in the Senate race but also in several House races. But where they do see a ray of hope is in the gubernatorial race, where Denver Mayor Hickenlooper leads by double digits.

2010 Elections: Colorado Races

In a race fraught with fighting among conservatives, pollsters say Hickenlooper is looking at an easy victory to replace exiting Gov. Bill Ritter, who decided not to seek reelection.

At today's fiery debate between Democrat John Hickenlooper, Republican Dan Maes and the American Constitution Party's Tom Tancredo, fireworks sparked between Maes and Tancredo as the Republican candidate accused the former member of Congress of sneaking onto the ballot "like an illegal immigrant."

Businessman Maes rode to victory on the back of the Tea Party's support, narrowly defeating another GOP establishment favorite, former Rep. Scott McInnis.

Tancredo quit the GOP and declared himself a candidate of the American Constitution Party despite calls from Maes and other Republicans who feared it would split the vote. The former congressman's move did divide the Republican Party, essentially paving an easy path for Hickenlooper.

"You know what, I went through the system. I did exactly what I was asked to do and I've stood up to powerful powerful people over the last year," Maes said, when asked by ABC's Tapper why he elected not to drop out. "And with all due respect to the congressman (Tancredo), you can't cheat and come under the fence like an illegal immigrant with three months to spare."

"You just don't get to do that. So I don't buy polls. I never bought polls," he added. "Let's not count Dan Maes or the conservative movement out until Nov. 2."

He also attacked Tancredo's conservative credentials, specifically his decision to vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, for banks, which the former congressman said was necessary at the time.

"If you're going to claim to be a conservative, you shouldn't have voted for TARP," Maes said. "And if I've proven one thing over the last 90 days is I stand up to anybody."

Tancredo, who has become a poster child for tougher immigration measures, defended his own voting record and decision to run as a third party candidate.

"I believed Dan could not win the race, and I believed John should not win the race. That was my impetus of getting in," he said today. "I didn't sneak in anywhere, I followed the law."

Experts say if immigration were as hot of a topic as it is in some border states, Tancredo could have the opportunity of a last-minute surge. But that's not the case in Colorado. Maes hasn't dropped out, as some Republicans had hoped, which has split the conservative base.

Colorado Debates to Test Democrats' Strength

The race between Buck and Bennet is one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country. With Colorado proving itself as a decisively purple state, Democrats are pouring millions of dollars into Bennet's campaign to cap their losses. At the same time, Republicans also see the race as an opportunity to win back a key seat in the state where independents dominate.

"There are still a reasonable number of people that are undecided, and then you have your own supporters who need to be enforced," said Democratic consultant Michael Stratton. "The strategy that candidates have right now is do no harm, kind of the hypocritical oath of politics right now."

Buck has attacked Bennet as a Washington insider closely aligned with Obama's agenda, even though the incumbent has attempted to portray himself as an independent and more of a moderate.

Bennet, in turn, has criticized his opponent for calling Social Security a "horrible policy" -- a comment that Buck later retracted -- and his comments that the Department of Education isn't necessary.

2010 Election Maps: Follow the Senate, House and Governors' Races

"What drives Bucks' constituencies and where he continues to hammer is that Bennet is part of the Washington establishment, votes with the president, is responsible for much of the debt we've had in the last 18 months, backed health care, which he feels is too much," said Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Bennet's going to argue that his [Buck's] plan is essentially Bush two, that it's simply what got us into this mess."

Like the rest of the country, the economy is the number one concern in Colorado. But both parties have tried to inject other issues that are important to Coloradans, like abortion and energy.

Buck has said he would sponsor a constitutional amendment to ban abortions, even in the case of rape or incest.

The Republican candidate also supported a state initiative on "personhood" that would extend legal rights to embryos and would ban any form of birth control that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Most recently, he has said he won't push for such a ballot initiative, even though he supports the concept.

To help Bennet increase his female voter base, first lady Michelle Obama visited Colorado Thursday to rally for the Democrat.

2010 Elections: Colorado Races

"In order to have [Obama's] back, we're going to need to have people like Michael. We're going to need you again, and we're going to need you just as fired up and ready to go as two years ago," the first lady told the crowd.

Early voting ballots were mailed out to voters Tuesday and early results should start trickling in by next week.

ABC News' Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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