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Thinner caucus crowds share views to start election year 

In 2008, Colorado College senior Giancarlo Bizzarro symbolized a year of youthful passion when he urged his Old North End precinct to support Barack Obama, saying, "This is time for a change."

Tuesday night, in front of a much smaller crowd in the same Democratic precinct, Giancarlo's father Salvatore Bizzarro, a Colorado College professor, spoke to a mood of relative ambivalence: "Can't we get both of them in the Senate at the same time?" he joked.

Compelled instead to choose between former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff and U.S. Sen. appointee Michael Bennet, Democrats sent a fairly clear message of support to the grassroots favorite. With 92 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Romanoff was beating Bennet 51-42 percent in a party preference poll. (Seven percent of caucus-goers remained uncommitted.)

A significant victory, yes, but probably not sufficient to immediately alter the dynamic of a race in which Bennet has a huge fundraising lead.

On the Republican side, underdog Ken Buck was edging senatorial frontrunner Jane Norton by a few votes Wednesday morning, while gubernatorial favorite Scott McInnis was striding to an easy, though not overwhelming, 60-40 victory over opponent Dan Maes.

While the big talk in advance of the Republican caucuses was a possible influx of new people associated with tea party and 9-12 groups, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, county chair for the McInnis campaign, said she saw only three or four caucus newcomers in six precincts that gathered at Bristol Elementary School.

"In general," Clark says, "it was a lot of the same folks."

One big upset was Buck, the Weld County district attorney, battling on even terms with Norton, who stirred some resentment for her coziness with Sen. John McCain and other members of the Republican establishment. With 94 percent of precincts reporting close to 25,000 votes, both candidates hovered around 38 percent, with Buck edging Norton by 29 votes.

El Paso County GOP Chair Kay Rendleman estimates total county turnout will come to around 3,000, well below the 10,000-plus of 2008.

Though county Republicans must decide a number of local races, the caucuses' only straw polls were for governor or Senate. In both parties, delegates picked at caucuses will go to their respective county assemblies in April, with smaller groups moving on to state assemblies in May.

Candidates in local races with 30 percent of support from delegates at county assemblies — or statewide candidates with 30 percent at state assemblies — will have their names on Aug. 10 primary ballots, with the favorite's name appearing on top.

For local Democrats, the Senate race was the only source of contention on caucus night: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper is unopposed in his bid to become governor, and no local races have more than one Democratic candidate.

With 1,112 votes counted — compared to about 8,000 in 2008 — representing the bulk of El Paso County's precincts, the county favored Bennet 51-41 over Romanoff. In Salvatore Bizzarro's precinct, 19 participants broke 14-5 in favor of Bennet.

Michael Cellan, bearing stickers for both candidates, quietly sided with Romanoff. Still, Cellan said what many Dems seem to be saying: "I will support either one."

lane@csindy.com

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