COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In another time, in another place, Ken Buck might have doomed his chances of helping the Republicans seize control of the U.S. Senate the minute he started talking about high heels.
The small-town district attorney committed a classic political gaffe when he joked recently that the reason he should win next Tuesday's primary to be the Republicans' Senate candidate this fall is that he doesn't wear high heels as his rival, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, does.
Norton ads slammed Buck as a crude sexist. Political insiders predicted that he'd pay a heavy price. Yet Buck still has an edge over Norton in polls for the primary — he's up by 50-41 percent in a July 27-29 poll for The Denver Post — and should he win that, he has a solid chance to defeat either of two possible Democratic candidates.
The reason? Buck's image as an anti-establishment, unpolished outsider comes at a moment when a lot of conservatives, such as members of the tea party, hunger for in-your-face voices in Washington — and are suspicious of anyone who looks like a polished let's-make-a-deal insider, even a Republican one.
They're people such as Nina Rodriguez, an executive recruiter from Colorado Springs who'd tuned out politics for years — until George W. Bush started cutting deals with Washington Republicans to jack up government spending and Barack Obama was elected to succeed him.
"When I was young, the anti-establishment was at Haight Ashbury. Now the anti-establishment is Ward and June Cleaver," Rodriguez said.
So when Norton boasts that she was lieutenant governor, that may have helped prompt Washington insiders such as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to back her, but it's more of a target than a badge of honor to someone such as Rodriguez.
"Norton is the establishment," Rodriguez said.
"I don't have to worry about him (Buck) getting squishy," said Jeremy Goodall, who's also a recruiter from Colorado Springs. "A lot of Republicans get elected to D.C., then they start saying, 'A little more spending here, a little more spending there.' They just keep compromising."
"He (Buck) speaks from his heart," said Mary Hertzog, a teacher from Colorado Springs. "He's not scripted."
That's for sure.
Despite support from tea party members, Buck reacted angrily when one pressed him to talk about the false allegation that Obama wasn't born in the United States.
"Will you tell those dumbasses at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera? God, what am I supposed to do?" Buck said.
Then there was the high heels comment.
Asked at a rally why people should vote for him instead of Norton, he said, "Because I do not wear high heels."
Buck, who often jokes about having to take out the trash at home because his wife has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, said in an interview that he was reacting only to Norton.
He said she'd often referred to gender. She said in one TV ad that Buck should be "man enough" to level his own attacks. She's also noted that she'd be the state's first female senator, he said, and she's said herself that one thing that sets her apart from Buck is that she wears heels.
"I have taken them as Jane making a lighthearted comment," he said. "I was asked what's the difference and I said, 'You know, I don't wear high heels and I wear boots.' It was the same lighthearted intent."
Norton and her campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.
Her supporters tend to think, though, that the high heels comment underscores the problems Buck would have reaching out to independent voters in a general election against either Sen. Michael Bennet or his Democratic primary challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
"Ken Buck is a little coarse," said Rick Murray, a financial broker from the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch. "I like Jane Norton. She has a better handle on the specifics."
Both GOP candidates oppose Obama's agenda, and Bennet for supporting it.
Buck, for example, said he'd vote to repeal the new health care law. When pressed what he'd do if his side fell short of the votes needed to repeal the law over the president's veto, he said they could start by refusing to appropriate money to carry out the law.
He also said he'd vote to pare federal spending by partly privatizing Social Security. Asked how he'd cut spending if that proved politically impossible, he said he had no plan B.
"I'm hoping I learn," he said.
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