started out as a long shot in Colorado's Republican race for the U.S. Senate.
In fact, last August, it appeared Buck would exit the race to clear the field
for former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton
, the National Republican Senatorial Committee's
Ten months and lots of voter uprising later, Buck is the front runner in the Aug. 10 primary. A Denver Post weekend poll put him ahead
of Norton 53 percent to 37 percent among likely GOP voters. Norton's staff issued its own poll
Tuesday showing her ahead 39 percent to 33 percent, especially among women (the Denver Post's poll featured 57 percent men in its GOP sample).
The Colorado GOP primary may be another sign that 2010 isn't a business-as-usual election.
"Isn't it amazing how things changed this year?" said Katy Atkinson, a GOP political consultant based in Denver. "All the conventional wisdom has just gone out the window."
Buck is positioning himself as an outsider, winning the support of the state's Tea Party groups, while the NRSC's early assistance to Norton may turn out to be the kiss of death.
"I think he's done a very good job in positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate in an anti-establishment year," says Rob Witwer, a former Republican state lawmaker and co-author of a book about Colorado politics
. "That's clearly what people want to hear, judging from all the results of primaries and special elections around the country."
It's easy to peg this primary race as another in a series of political outsider vs. political insider, and that's certainly how Buck and his supporters want to portray it. But it isn't that simple.
"The truth is, both Ken Buck and Jane Norton have long and established public service careers," Witwer says.
Norton served three months in the state House in 1986 after being appointed to a vacant seat. She worked for the Department of Health and Human Services under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She served as director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and then Gov. Bill Owens named her his running mate for lieutenant governor, a role she filled for four years.
Buck worked for the Department of Justice and served as chief of the criminal division in the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office. He was elected Weld County district attorney in 2004.
The two take similar positions on the issues. Both oppose health-care reform, abortion and the stimulus package. Both support cutting taxes and defend the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Buck supporters cite one main policy difference. In 2005, then-Lt. Gov. Norton supported an initiative passed by voters allowing the state to spend money collected over constitutional limits for five years. Buck opposed the effort
But that was five years ago, in different times.
"I don't think there's any question that Ken Buck and Jane Norton would vote almost identically in the U.S. Senate," says Witwer, a Norton supporter. "They would both vote as conservatives. They would both remain true to those core principles."
While the two might not vote differently, they likely would portray different images, says independent political consultant Eric Sondermann.
"You can imagine Norton trying to find herself as much more of a centrist Republican, an establishment Republican, a dealmaker Republican," he says. "You can picture Ken Buck being more of a bomb thrower."
Norton's most noted public action may have been a 1999 ban on state funding to allow Planned Parenthood
to offer family-planning services to low-income families, claiming that some of the money for exams and contraceptives might end up funding abortion.
Buck is known for his anti-illegal-immigration stance, including support of a sheriff's raid on a tax preparer's office
in an effort to identify people using fake Social Security numbers. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled the 2008 search unconstitutional.
So what makes Buck so much more attractive to the crowd that Northern Colorado Tea Party
Director Lesley Hollywood calls pro-liberty?
"Ken has really made himself accessible to the grassroots in Colorado," Hollywood says. "He has no problem getting out talking to people attending events, attending small rallies."
"Jane Norton has not" been accessible, Hollywood says.
Sondermann agrees that's a problem for Norton.
"There's certainly been a criticism of Norton that she's been overly sheltered," he says. "In a year where the grassroots are energized, they're requiring some face time."
Early in the year, Hollywood helped organize four events around Colorado to train political novices such as herself how to get involved in the state's relatively arcane caucus and assembly process. Hollywood says Buck attended all four events, while Norton attended only the last two. And Norton avoided social hours before the events, showing up in time to speak and leaving immediately after.
"I have gotten to know every single candidate running in this state," Hollywood says. "The one person I do not know, that you can never ever get to, is Jane Norton. She is so far removed from the people."
Norton has traveled the state, meeting with potential constituents at coffee shops and cafes. Hollywood isn't impressed.
"I feel like Jane panders to the fringe," Hollywood says, noting that Norton has seemed to support questions about President Barack Obama's citizenship and other controversial issues.
At one such event in rural Colorado, Norton failed to correct one woman's assertion that Obama is a Muslim
, instead commending her passion.
Despite Buck's Tea Party creds -- endorsements from Red State's Erick Erickson
and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint
-- Norton has the nod from conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt
, the Family Research Council Action PAC and the American Conservative Union PAC
and fellow GOP Senate candidates Marco Rubio of Florida and Joe Toomey of Pennsylvania
attended a fundraiser with her.
Silent in the race thus far is the influential conservative organization Club for Growth
and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who's been an endorsement machine in primaries this year
. Many speculated Palin might endorse Norto
n at a May appearance in Denver, but that didn't happen.
"She may look at this and say there's not an upside for her stepping in," Sondermann says of Palin. "She wants to step in with the female candidate where that's possible and she wants to step in with the Tea Party candidate where that's possible. Here, those people are not the same."
Norton's fundraising surpasses Buck's, and she's run at least two television ads in the state. But political committees such as 527s are stepping in to pick up the slack for Buck. Americans for Job Security
began running a pro-Buck ad this week
"We have a month until ballots and seven weeks until they're counted," Sondermann says. "I assume whatever bombs are going to be thrown are still sitting in people's pockets."
One of those potential bombs dropped this week, when the Denver Post ran a story about Buck's exit from the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2002
. The story says Buck was reprimanded for discussing with defense attorneys a gun case his office was pursuing.
Turnout and balloting will be a factor in this race -- and the ramp-up in TV ads and campaign mailings. Although primary election day is Aug. 10, 46 of the state's 63 counties -- including many of the most populated -- are conducting mail-in only elections, with ballots to be mailed beginning July 19.
Mail-in ballots plus voter activism could increase turnout.
"If there's a large turnout, it bodes well for Jane Norton," Atkinson says. "If there's a smaller turnout, it's to Ken Buck's advantage."
The GOP winner will take on either incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet or his Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff. Polls show Bennet, who also leads in fundraising, far ahead of the former state House speaker.
Witwer says it's essential the candidates mend fences after the August primary.
"In order for Republicans to win this seat, the losing candidate's supporters are going to have to support the winning candidate enthusiastically. If bridges are burned in a primary, very often the consequence is losing the race in November."