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Local GOP: 16 divided by 3? 

Looking for the right analogy, Jim Bensberg lands on NASCAR.

"NASCAR doesn't pick its winner in advance of any race," he says. "What NASCAR does is makes sure that the rules are fair for all competitors. And that is the role of the county party: Line them up and see who gets to the finish line first."

Bensberg ran in a Republican primary in 2002, when he first won his seat on the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners. This coming June, he could be facing a primary competition again. And not with one opponent, but two.

He's taking it in stride.

"You have to stay focused on your own campaign," he says.

This is the first 2012 primary challenge to emerge in El Paso County, but almost certainly not the last. For months, local Republicans have been wracked by infighting, and grassroots activists talk confidently of primary challenges targeting state and county legislators, including some of the local party's biggest names. The next few weeks should bring more announcements.

Bensberg, 56, was the first candidate to show interest in replacing term-limited state Rep. Larry Liston, and he has some early advantages. Roughly half of HD 16, in north-central Colorado Springs, overlaps Bensberg's old commissioner district. And he's won the early support of Reps. Mark Waller and Mark Barker, as well as Sheriff Terry Maketa. County Treasurer Bob Balink has given Bensberg his endorsement, and a $100 donation.

Bensberg's also the only candidate to have officially announced. Yet this month, both newcomer Mike Garner and former state Senate candidate Owen Hill filed paperwork with the secretary of state's office.

According to multiple sources, Garner is seen as Liston's hand-picked heir. When contacted, Garner opted not to discuss his candidacy, "as I have not formally announced. Furthermore, I am quite busy with work and also preparing for this campaign."

Liston chose not to discuss the race for his district, nor his perceived support for Garner.

Hill, an Air Force Academy graduate who works for Compassion International, says he isn't certain whether he will run in HD 16 or challenge Democrat Pete Lee in HD 18; that depends on the new district maps. Currently, Hill says, he is located in HD 16, but his house is near the boundary.

"The rules say that you have to live in a district a year before the general election, but the lines won't be drawn until December," he says. "So at some point I'm going to have to just throw my hat in the ring."

Hill, 29, lost by just 1 percent last year to Democrat and Senate Majority Leader John Morse.

"I have had a lot of donors contact me to say that they threw me a bone last time," Hill says, "because they want to see younger, competent professionals step up in the Republican party."

Now these same donors, he says, are fully behind him (though so far, he hasn't declared any contributions).

"It is time for new energy," says Hill. "We've got to have a debate about who can get the ball down the field the best."

"Larry's been a good man for the district in the past," Hill says. "And there's obviously going to be some tensions, as I try to sell a younger, more energetic, ambitious idea for the community, but I think that that's a tension that needs to happen."

Bensberg sees Liston's support for Garner as a distraction that could possibly backfire on the candidate.

"I think that most people reject an incumbent trying to hand-pick their successor," Bensberg says. "When you try to select someone to succeed you, it doesn't sit well with the average Republican."

chet@csindy.com

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