DENVER — Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet battled for his job Tuesday in a Colorado primary against Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker whose grass-roots campaign and embrace of the nation's anti-establishment mood has him within striking distance of an upset.
Republicans in the state had their own outsider-versus-insider Senate story line. Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, endorsed by most sitting GOP senators, faced Ken Buck, a rural prosecutor who depicted Norton as too cozy with the Washington establishment.
Colorado's primary is mostly mail-in, and early ballot totals suggested the election could set turnout records.
Bennet faced the possibility of being the third senator this year to fail to win his party's nomination, after Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa. The race was too close to call in advance polling, and it even divided two Democratic presidents.
President Barack Obama praised Bennet in a conference call with Democrats last week and chipped in automated phone calls over the weekend. Bennet advised Obama on education during the 2008 campaign and has largely sided with the White House in the Senate.
Former President Bill Clinton parted ways with Obama and recorded phone calls to voters Monday urging them to support Romanoff.
If Bennet loses, the Senate would have at least 15 lame duck members this fall, either because of retirements or primary losses.
Romanoff, a former state lawmaker from Denver, has pounded Bennet as a Washington insider chosen by elites, not Coloradans. Bennet was appointed to the seat last year when former Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar became Interior secretary. Bennet has never run for office before.
Bennet tried to play up his political inexperience as well as his financial expertise in a time of recession. On a cross-state campaign sprint last weekend, he railed against the chamber in which he's seeking a full term.
"Watch the Senate floor for a week. Want to know what's happening? Nothing," Bennet groused.
Bennet had a wide fundraising lead over Romanoff, who mortgaged his house in the campaign's final days. But Romanoff turned his disadvantage into a selling point, making a virtue of his refusal to take money from political action committees and even taping handwritten campaign signs in the windows of his headquarters in a rundown Denver strip mall.
He bills himself as "the best senator money can't buy" and blasts ruling Democrats as being too timid on the environment, health care and financial regulation.
On the GOP side, Buck blasted Norton's Washington connections, including her ties to Arizona's John McCain, who stumped for Norton in Colorado Sunday. Norton co-chaired McCain's Colorado presidential campaign in 2008 and counts him as a family friend.
Norton countered that Buck's no outsider, having spent his entire career in government service, including as a former U.S. assistant attorney.
The Republican contest has been personal at times, with Norton questioning in campaign ads whether Buck was "man enough" to take her on. A few weeks later, Buck was backpedaling after telling a voter to choose him "because I do not wear high heels."