When Scott McInnis talks at a Thursday night meeting of El Paso County's Young Republicans, he makes sure to include overtures to the tea party crowd.
After pinning blame for Colorado's sagging economy on Democrats and the new regulations they placed on the oil and gas industry, the GOP candidate for governor drops a title from the disgruntled far right's reading list.
"You should absolutely read Atlas Shrugged," McInnis says, referring to conservative darling Ayn Rand's opus in which the world falls apart after society's industrialists decide to stop sharing their genius with everyone else.
Later, McInnis talks about a bygone era of small government that left most people alone: "We didn't have Big Brother breathing down our necks."
McInnis' words, a supportive crowd of several dozen and a taco buffet all contribute to a relaxed, warm mood during the meeting at El Paso County GOP headquarters.
That mood lasts right up until McInnis starts taking questions.
"Why are you avoiding talking to the tea party and 9-12 groups?" a woman in the front row asks, her hands trembling with nervous energy as she tries to keep a video camera focused on the former congressman.
McInnis says a busy schedule makes it impossible to accept every invitation, but the woman continues to demand an explanation for why her e-mails have gone unanswered. An event organizer has to break in with a request for civility.
Though it's still early in the 2010 race for governor, this snapshot captures an emerging story line in the competition to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
To win his party's nomination and the November election, McInnis must court activists associated with the disjointed but energized tea party movement, without appearing to cave in to them. (Witness the reaction to remarks from Jane Norton, the GOP's U.S. Senate frontrunner, suggesting President Barack Obama favors the rights of terrorists over the rights of citizens.) And he must do that while fighting the phantom candidacy of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has just started hiring campaign staff three weeks after entering the Democratic race.
While courting tea partiers is tricky, claiming their support can be even trickier. A Jan. 23 story in the New York Times describes how the movement helped put Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy. It also describes how Colorado tea party leaders lashed out after a FOX News anchor labeled McInnis the "Tea-Party-backed candidate" here; many of those leaders actually favor McInnis' Republican opponent, longshot Dan Maes.
It's the same "don't-take-us-for-granted" reaction that's evident among the handfuls of tea partiers at this local Young Republicans meeting.
McInnis' response, repeated later by his local liaison, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, is that he's meeting often with tea party groups. Says Clark: "We just work them into the schedule whenever possible."
That may or may not hold water with people so passionate about the importance of a minimalist government. Tea partiers certainly aren't likely to go to Hickenlooper, who's known to favor tax increases, but they still could affect a close race simply by not voting for the Republican.
So assuming Hickenlooper's nascent campaign gathers steam, how McInnis spends his time and hones his technique could be crucially important even to people with no taste for tea.