Colorado’s Senate slate already moving to center

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Democrats looking to keep a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado quickly shifted gears Wednesday after a divisive primary, angling for the political center and laying into Republican nominee Ken Buck as too conservative.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet even suggested he might distance himself from President Barack Obama after playing up his connections to the president and accepting White House help in his primary battle against Andrew Romanoff.

Buck vowed “to reach out our hand for the independent and Democratic voters” after a long primary contest in which he played up his no-compromise conservatism and ties to tea party groups.

Activists with both parties moved to forestall opponents’ appeal to Colorado moderates.

A day after Buck defeated former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the Republican primary, a group of left-leaning groups launched a “Too Crazy For Colorado” tagline for Buck.

The coalition – dubbed the Campaign for Strong Colorado – included Planned Parenthood and ProgressNow Colorado, and it planned to use comments Buck made in his primary campaign against him. Early ammunition included Buck’s opposition to abortion rights, even in cases of rape and incest, and Buck’s argument for deep cuts to the federal departments of Education and Energy. Buck has called for completely cutting off funding for the U.S. Postal Service and Amtrak.

“How can he represent what Colorado’s all about and say these crazy things?” said Ellen Dumm, executive director of the group.

Buck said in his victory speech that his unapologetic conservatism can win over moderates, and insisted Colorado’s middle-of-the-road voters are frustrated with ruling Democrats in Washington.

Several Republican activists said they were confident Buck can prevail. About a third of Colorado’s active voters aren’t affiliated with either major party and haven’t had a chance to weigh in on the Senate race.

Norton had argued during the campaign that she’d have a better shot at winning independents. But her pitch didn’t persuade GOP voters.

“I think he crosses over well to moderates,” said Jennifer Bailey, head of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance and a Buck supporter. “People are so fed up with what they’re seeing in Washington, they’ll be embracing an alternative.”

Bennet indicated he’s also looking to the middle.

Bennet played up his association with the White House during his primary struggle. Obama headlined a Denver fundraiser for Bennet and joined a conference call with Bennet in the closing days of the campaign. Obama called Bennet “the person that I want alongside me.”

But Bennet demurred when asked Wednesday whether he’d seek Obama’s help in the general election. Asked what role he could envision for Obama, Bennet told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” ”We’re going to have to give it some thought.”

Republicans indicated they’d push hard to tie Bennet to Obama, who has slipped in popularity in Colorado as he has in the rest of the nation. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said in a statement that Bennet “owes his victory … to the establishment Democrats.”

Bennet was appointed last year after Obama picked Sen. Ken Salazar to be his interior secretary. Steele called Bennet a “hand-picked successor who will be a reliable vote for endless spending and higher taxes.”

Support from national bigwigs appeared to hurt a pair of Republican congressional candidates.

Lang Sias, a suburban Denver Republican with the backing of Arizona Sen. John McCain, lost badly in the primary to Ryan Frazier. Frazier will face Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter in November.

In a western Colorado district, Bob McConnell, a first-time candidate backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, lost to Republican state lawmaker Scott Tipton. Tipton earned a rematch against Democratic Rep. John Salazar, who beat Tipton in 2006.