Bennet, Romanoff Go Negative in Colorado Senate Primary

State's primary may preview the tone of November's elections.

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Forget four-letter words. The trash-talking this election season has been loaded with political expletives of a different sort. Terms like "establishment," "insider," "Wall Street," and "Big Oil" have inflicted much greater wounds on political adversaries, as candidates have tried to separate themselves from Washington's special interests. In Tuesday's Colorado Senate primary, anything could happen, and both Democrats and Republicans are trying to define the opposition as the enemy before being beaten to the punch.

Centennial State voters, like those in other states, are angry and candidates have taken notice. Negative television advertising has reached new levels in the last couple of weeks. Both parties' races reflect the nation's anti-Washington sentiments, and it won't be a surprise if the high-stakes battlefield only grows more contentious as next week's winners head to the general elections. "This race is a pretty good foreshadowing of things to come," says Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "Not only in Colorado, but around the country." [See where Bennet's campaign cash comes from.]

The race is receiving particular attention in the nation's capital because of its high-profile endorsements. President Obama has strongly endorsed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, while Democratic former President Bill Clinton has backed Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker. Last week, Obama lauded Bennet during a telephone town hall for the candidate, saying Bennet is willing to stand up to special interests and the status quo. "It's sort of an early Obama-strength test," says Tracey, noting the swing nature of Colorado's voters. "Can he win in his own party?" [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

The Democratic Senate primary race kicked into high gear in July when Romanoff launched what the Denver Post called a "below the belt" ad highlighting Bennet's experience in the finance industry working for Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. The Romanoff television spot said Bennet, who was appointed last year to replace Ken Salazar when he became secretary of the interior, "looted a billion dollars" through a "corporate raid" that cost workers their jobs. In response, Bennet launched an ad labeling Romanoff's strategy "cynical politics at its worst." Before the counterattack, Bennet's ads were largely positive. Romanoff, who has pledged not to take any campaign funding from political action committees, has also tried to draw attention to Bennet's list of corporate contributors. For example, in another ad, logos for big businesses like JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and BP stream alongside Bennet's name and photo. [See who in Congress gets the most from the credit and finance industry.]

So far, Romanoff is leading Bennet 48 percent to 45 percent in a SurveyUSA/Denver Post poll conducted July 27 to July 29. That's a change from a similar June poll, which had Bennet leading 53 percent to 36 percent.

Even though Bennet has been in office less than two years, the "incumbent" label has stuck and appears to be hurting him, say analysts. That is partially due to Romanoff's ads, says Katy Atkinson, a Colorado-based Republican political consultant. "[Bennet] gets painted with every problem that exists in Washington," she says. Yet, Atkinson adds, "He doesn't have his own base in his own party, and he doesn't have any name ID in the state."

Bennet tried to build name recognition by airing ads earlier than Romanoff, but Colorado lawyer and former Republican state Rep. Rob Witwer says Romanoff has conducted a stronger grass-roots campaign. "Romanoff is winning the bumper-sticker war and the yard-sign war," says Witwer.

Despite Romanoff's recent momentum, political insiders say Bennet has the advantage of deeper pockets going into the general election. According to the latest Federal Election Committee filing, posted July 21, Bennet has approximately $1.8 million in cash on hand, compared with Romanoff's approximately $160,000. Bennet has reportedly outspent Romanoff by $4.1 million. Additionally, Bennet contributed $300,000 of his own money this past weekend to remain competitive.