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Mile-High Meltdown

 The Republican Party is campaigning with a stiff wind at its back this year, thanks to a terrible economy, ripe targets created by two straight heavily Democratic cycles, favorable midterm turnout demographics, and the famous “enthusiasm gap.”

But, in Colorado, it seems as if the Republicans are conducting a meteorological experiment to test the strength of that wind, as they stumble disarrayed into today's primary. The race for the Republican Senate nomination is ugly: Candidates Jane Norton and Ken Buck are locked in a klutzy and tasteless competition to see who will screw up least. And the gubernatorial race … well, it’s never a good sign when both of your primary candidates are facing widespread demands to resign from politics altogether. What's more, the candidate who fails to lose that primary will face not only popular Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate, but also indignant third-party spoiler Tom Tancredo (who is in an unusually wrathful mood these days, even for him).

What the heck happened? How did the party end up looking so hapless in an election year that began with enormous optimism for a GOP sweep in Colorado?

Originally, former congressman Scott McInnis was cruising toward the gubernatorial nomination, while former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton was the odds-on favorite for the Senate nod. Both were looking good in the occasional general election trial heat. Yes, McInnnis's November battle with Hickenlooper would've been difficult, but he had no particular reason to worry about obscure self-styled Tea Party opponent Don Maes. And Norton, who is very mobbed-up in national GOP circles (her brother-in-law is uber-lobbyist and longtime campaign strategist Charlie Black), held a solid lead over district attorney Ken Buck, another Tea Partier, in Senate primary polls for many months.

Then, things started to unravel for the frontrunners.

By May, Buck, famous for spearheading a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants, developed enough steam among Tea Party loyalists and other conservatives that Norton decided to skip the ritual of seeking ballot access via the Republican State Assembly. Essentially a state party convention, the assembly was an activist stronghold, and Norton's decision threw the endorsement to Buck by default. Then came a far more painful blow: On the night of that gathering, Sarah Palin cruised into Denver for a big speech and failed to deliver an expected endorsement of Norton (according to some reports, she was warned off by purists in Colorado and elsewhere). Norton's poll ratings began sliding steadily downward, and Buck picked up national support from Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund and RedState’s Erick Erickson. By late June, he was in the lead.

There was another surprise at the State Assembly. The lightly regarded Maes edged out McInnis for the convention's endorsement. Yet Maes lost this advantage almost immediately, when he was charged with embarrassing campaign-finance violations, backed up by fines that wiped out most of his very limited funds.

That's when the real weirdness broke out. Ken Buck made his first gaffe at a strange venue: the annual Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Party sponsored by a Colorado libertarian organization. In the midst of discussing one of Jane Norton's ads, which questioned whether Buck is "man enough" to criticize her directly instead of relying on third-party groups, Buck said: “Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels.” He went on to characterize his own cowboy boots as having "real bullshit on them," as opposed to political bullshit  But gleefully taken out of context by Norton’s campaign and spread around the country by aficionados of stupid candidate tricks, Buck’s comment turned into a major problem for him, featuring prominently in attack ads from his rival.

He might have fought through that gaffe, had not an earlier mistake then come to light. A Democratic tracker caught Buck saying this: “Please tell those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera.”

Then it was Norton's turn to screw up. She made the very puzzling decision to cap off her campaign by barnstorming with John McCain, who represents the hated, TARP-loving GOP establishment in the eyes of many likely primary voters and who was trounced by Mitt Romney in the 2008 Colorado presidential caucus. Norton’s campaign claimed that it wanted to identify Norton with McCain’s very hawkish views on Iraq and Afghanistan—and that the trip would be good for free media attention—but the move also helped Buck get away from questions about footwear and birth certificates, and back to his original message of insurgency versus the establishment.

One theory as to why Norton invited McCain is that she may think the fervently anti-establishment voters who might be put off by his appearance have already voted by mail. (With most of Colorado’s larger counties moving to an all-mail-ballot format this year, voting has been underway for weeks.) Another is that she’s a bit desperate: Until yesterday, Buck was leading in nearly every poll by as much as nine points.

Of course, all of these mistakes are nothing when put in pespective. As nasty and unpredictable as the Senate primary has become, it has been a walk in the park compared to the gubernatorial campaign.

Scott McInnis’s stroll to the nomination took a turn for the very worse on July 13, when the Denver Post dropped a big anvil on his bid. Curious about what McInnis had actually done to earn a fat $300,000 stipend from a local foundation shortly after he left Congress, the Post looked into a serialized 150-page paper on water policy that appeared over McInnis’s byline. An investigator discovered that big chunks of the tome were lifted word-for-word from a 20-year-old manuscript written by a man who now serves on the Colorado Supreme Court. Thoroughly busted, McInnis managed to make the whole situation worse by pointing the finger at a ghostwriter, an 82-year-old engineer who was none too happy to discover that the work he had only been paid a few hundred bucks to produce (under the impression that it was background material for a future election run) earned McInnis 300 large.

The mess nearly drove McInnis right out of the race, and might have done so if it weren't for Don Maes, whose candidacy scares Republicans nearly the same amount. Aside from his campaign-finance violations and a steady trickle of negative reports about his competence as a businessman, Maes has also been expressing some strange public policy views, most notably claiming that a private-sector bike-sharing program identified with John Hickenlooper is actually part of a U.N. conspiracy to take over Denver. Just as importantly, from the right-wing perspective, Maes wasn’t showing much willingness to do Republicans the favor of knocking McInnis out of the primary and then gracefully withdrawing, allowing the state party to choose a more presentable nominee.

And just when Colorado Republicans thought things couldn’t get worse, who should come crashing onto the scene but that great twenty-first-century Know Nothing, Tom Tancredo? Fresh from penning an op-ed demanding the impeachment of President Obama, a “dedicated Marxist,” the fiery former congressman issued a public ultimatum to McInnis and Maes on a Thursday, giving them until the end of the weekend to jointly announce that the primary winner would withdraw, or else Tancredo would himself run on a third-party ticket. Not surprisingly, the deadline passed, and Tancredo entered the race as a member of the far-right, quasi-theocratic Constitution Party. He then christened his candidacy by engaging in an extended screaming match with state GOP chair Dick Wadhams, the "Karl Rove of Colorado," on a Denver radio station.

Tancredo—"the Tank"—is just impossible to ignore, and he has a hard-core following. A Rasmussen poll last week showed Tancredo taking nearly one-fourth of the vote in a three-way matchup with Hickenlooper and either Maes or McInnis, handing the Democrat an easy victory.

So, as Republican voters mail in their ballots for the gubernatorial primary, they are being forced to choose between a penniless Man from Nowhere who thinks the U.N. is taking over Denver and a plagiarist who cheats old ghostwriters, with the hope that the winner quits and that Tancredo then goes back growling to his fever swamps.

The only bright spot for them is the savage Democratic Senate primary battle, between appointed incumbent Michael Bennet and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. (Bennet is one candidate who is happy about the mail-in ballots cast before a recent story ran in The New York Times, questioning his handling of investments for the Denver school system.) At this point, it looks like either of those candidates could still win the primary—and end up losing to damaged goods like Ken Buck or Jane Norton.