It's Saturday, Feb. 6, and the El Paso County Democrats' planned strategy session has turned into a stump-speech showdown.
Andrew Romanoff and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, it turns out, have quietly accepted invitations at the last minute to speak to this gathering of party leaders at East Library.
The first of the two to speak is Bennet, appointed to the Senate a year ago and now facing Romanoff in his first-ever political race. The crowd is appreciative as Bennet talks informally and earnestly, if in a sometimes-rambling fashion, about the ills of Washington and a Senate he calls "broken."
"It's broken," he says, "at a time when the middle class in this country, in particular, faces extraordinary challenges."
After a few local candidates talk about their races, it's Romanoff's turn. The former speaker of the state House warms up the crowd by talking about local politics and the challenges of being a Democrat in El Paso County. He then earns vigorous applause by promising to refuse the "corporate case that is corrupting Washington and stifling reform."
The crowd erupts again when Romanoff blasts a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more corporate money to enter politics: "It will send a chill down the spine of every member of Congress who still has one."
The speeches leave the crowd of close to 200 Democrats momentarily giddy. Underneath, however, many are also torn.
"One of them has a chance of getting elected," says Joe Beggs, a precinct chair from eastern Colorado Springs, "and the other one captures my feelings."
Bennet soothes Beggs' intellect. The former Denver Public Schools superintendent may not have the network of statewide grassroots supporters that Romanoff has, but Bennet's gotten mostly solid reviews for his work in the last year and has proven a prodigious fundraiser, with $3.5 million already in the bank for TV ads and campaign costs.
Meanwhile, when pitted head-to-head against Republican candidate Jane Norton, Romanoff has stronger polling numbers than Bennet. But Romanoff has socked away less than $500,000, raising for many a question: While his anti-corporate-money stance — he's refusing to accept it in his campaign — might be appealing, could he really win a November election against a well-financed Republican?
For a Democratic central committee meeting in El Paso County, the crowd is large and enthusiastic; about 145 precinct chairs show up, many of them newcomers to party leadership since the 2008 election. Attendees had initially planned to discuss the possibility of hiring an executive director to bring a new level of organization to the group; ironically, something of an organizational snafu derailed that plan. The discussion is now scheduled to take place Tuesday, Feb. 16.
Few today seem worried about the delay, thanks to the presence of Bennet and Romanoff. The meeting produces no fireworks — the two candidates seem intent on avoiding each other — but the depth of Romanoff's local support is obvious as he shakes hands and works the room.
On his way out after speaking to the group, Bennet acknowledges he faces an uphill battle leading up to the party's March 16 caucuses, when grassroots supporters tend to dominate. But Bennet predicts he'll do "fine" as he keeps trying to get his message out, leading up to the primary election in August.
"We're working hard to let people know what we're doing in Washington," Bennet says. "I'm not taking anything for granted."
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