HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — The breakfast coffee was starting to cool when Tom Tancredo wrapped up his talk on the evils of illegal immigration and President Barack Obama and opened the floor to questions from his fellow Republicans.
One of the first: Why are you ruining Republican prospects by jumping into the Colorado governor's race as a third-party candidate?
Tancredo, a former five-term Republican congressman from Colorado, said he wouldn't be a spoiler. He won't, he said, draw votes away from an already damaged Republican nominee and allow the Democrats to win the campaign for governor.
"If I believed that, I wouldn't do it," he said. "I simply don't believe it."
He's virtually alone, however.
Even before they pick their candidates in a primary next Tuesday, Colorado Republicans fear that they're on course to lose in a battleground state they desperately want to win from the Democrats this fall.
Mostly, they worry that they'll lose a governor's race they thought was safely in their hands just weeks ago. They also fret that the scandal and infighting in that race could hurt their chances at taking a U.S. Senate seat away from the Democrats, one of the seats the Republicans need if they're to retake control of the Senate.
"Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," said Jeremy Goodall, a recruiter from Colorado Springs who's active in the tea party movement. "And it will absolutely affect down-ballot races."
The change in GOP fortunes came with blinding speed, particularly in the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who's stepping down after one term.
First, the leading candidate to win the Republican nomination, former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, was rocked by revelations that he'd plagiarized work during a fellowship for which he was paid $300,000.
Some of his staff resigned, and McInnis lost the lead he'd held for months in general election poll matchups against likely Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, according to Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen.
McInnis' primary rival Dan Maes fares no better, also trailing Hickenlooper.
Enter Tancredo, who's among the many Republicans who urged McInnis to drop out. Having failed in that endeavor, Tancredo will run as a third-party candidate.
In an interview, he said he jumped in late last month because he thought that either McInnis or Maes would lose, and he represented the only chance for a conservative to win.
"This is not something I would have done if I thought the Republican Party had a chance of winning," he said. "Three weeks ago, I was not thinking of doing it. Things have changed."
The danger Tancredo poses to Republican hopes is that he'll push the focus of the fall campaign onto his two dominant themes: stopping illegal immigration and impeaching Obama. In a state where more than one-third of the voters are independents, those could be polarizing issues and costly distractions.
Tancredo's hard-line stance on illegal immigration is popular among conservatives.
"Every state should do what Arizona is doing, which is telling the federal government to go pound sand," he said at the breakfast meeting in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch.
However, that underscores that he could split conservative votes while the growing Hispanic population, as well as suburban moderates, could blanch at confrontation and swing to the Democrats.
"Immigration is an important issue but the public shies away from intense conflict over it," independent Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said.
Tancredo also pushes hard to impeach Obama.
"The president of the United States of America should be impeached," Tancredo told the Republican breakfast, ticking off a list of offenses including the takeover of U.S. car companies and topped by what he described as the president's failure to secure the Southern border from drug cartels and Hezbollah terrorists.
"He can be brought up on charges," Tancredo said. "He is a threat to the nation."
While conservatives loathe the Obama agenda of big government, many recoil at the thought of starting impeachment proceedings — or of letting the subject define the conservative cause this fall.
"He's a nut," Mary Hertzog, a teacher from Colorado Springs and a conservative Republican, said of Tancredo. "He's a loose cannon, and he embarrasses me as a Coloradan."
"That's what will happen in September and October," pollster Ciruli said. "He could focus the Republican message away from a referendum on Obama and debt and all the things they've been winning on, and get into immigration and birthers and all that."
A coalition of tea party and conservative groups had urged Tancredo not to run. "You want to impose your personal choice and will over the will of the people," they said in a letter to him. "You are subverting the process and our will."
It didn't work.
At the same time, the Republican primary campaign for the U.S. Senate nomination has degenerated into a nasty, name-calling fight between former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck.
He calls her an establishment insider who was part of a statehouse team that raised taxes, fighting words in a year when anti-establishment sentiment runs strong among conservatives.
She suggests he's a sexist unfit for office, because of his comment that he's better qualified because he doesn't wear high heels.
One plus for Republicans: The Democrats also could be scarred by a very personal primary fight between Sen. Michael Bennet and challenger Andrew Romanoff.
Another is that the underlying Colorado political landscape, which had been tilting toward the Democrats in past years — culminating in Obama's nomination in the state in 2008 — now leans against them.
Ritter was an unpopular governor. The economy hurts, even if the state jobless rate of 8 percent is lower than the national average. Obama's policies have gone too far for many independent voters.
Given that opportunity, it's all the more remarkable that Republicans could lose.
"They are in the process of giving up their advantage if they're not careful," Ciruli said. "The party just looks completely conflicted. Everyone is calling everyone else a liar and hypocrite. You couldn't have a worse situation."
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