DENVER — Tom Tancredo is quick to admit he brings plenty of baggage to the Colorado governor's race.
Like the time he called Miami a "Third World country." Or when he got thrown out of the White House for suggesting then-President George W. Bush was soft on illegal immigration. Or when he refused to take part in a presidential debate because it was on a Spanish-language network.
This week, he added more fuel to the fire when he said President Barack Obama is a bigger threat to the United States than al-Qaida or terrorism.
But despite all the baggage, the immigration hard-liner is running a solid campaign for governor as a third-party candidate and is within the margin of error in several recent polls.
Tancredo has successfully courted tea party groups, capitalized on anti-incumbent anger and parlayed his trademark blunt talk on the issues to become the de facto Republican candidate. Tancredo has also taken advantage of the collapse of GOP nominee Dan Maes, who is polling in single digits amid a series of character issues and campaign gaffes.
Tancredo is a former Republican lawmaker who left Congress in 2008 to mount a longshot White House bid that was largely based on an anti-immigration platform. He quit the GOP this year after saying that the Republicans in the governor's race couldn't win.
He got on the ballot as the American Constitution Party candidate – and has been surging in the polls ever since.
Democrat John Hickenlooper, the popular mayor of Denver, remains the favorite and a formidable candidate given his fundraising lead, but he has never made it above 50 percent in most polls.
The Canon City Daily Record reported that Tancredo told a coffee shop crowd Tuesday that Obama posed a threat to the Constitution, saying: "It's not al-Qaida, it's the guy sitting in the White House."
Tancredo also said he believes Obama and Hickenlooper are "kindred spirits."
Tancredo has said Hickenlooper, a former brewpub owner, raised taxes by $290 million in Denver. He also criticized the Denver mayor for opposing state laws on illegal immigration.
"I'm fed up with elitist politicians who trash our values and jeopardize our economic future," Tancredo said.
Although he refuses to attack Tancredo personally, Hickenlooper has sought to portray Tancredo's policies as radical, including proposals to cut government regulation on issues such as oil and gas drilling.
"We need predictability, not volatility," Hickenlooper said.
Tancredo, who frequently rides around on a Harley-Davidson, recently suggested that drivers on the main east-west highway in Colorado pay tolls – an idea that flies in the face of his low-tax mantra.
Tancredo also drew gasps from a business crowd when he apologized during a speech if their lunch was cold. He joked that half the wait and kitchen staff usually leaves when he walks into a room because of his immigration stance.
Tancredo owes his rise to several bizarre developments involving the Republican candidates in the race.
Former Rep. Scott McInnis was favored to win the primary, but became engulfed in a plagiarism scandal and lost to Maes. Maes then became dogged by campaign finance violations and ridiculed for his views on U.N. global warming conspiracies involving bicycles in Denver, among other gaffes. He also made questionable claims about his shadowy record as a policeman in Kansas.
Tancredo swooped in and focused on his signature issue: immigration.
He repeatedly accuses Hickenlooper of running a "sanctuary city" in Denver. One unsavory Tancredo ad cites the case of an illegal immigrant who drove into a suburban Denver ice cream shop, killing a 3-year-old boy. The boy's father asks Hickenlooper how he can sleep at night.
Tancredo promises to sign an Arizona-style law that requires police to check immigration status. Hickenlooper vows to veto it. Tancredo wants to require proof of citizenship to enroll in public schools. Hickenlooper opposes it. Tancredo wants limits on federal stimulus spending. Hickenlooper supports more federal spending and points to federal money providing broadband to rural areas.
Tancredo appeals to voters like Frank DeFilippo, a registered Republican. He said this year's gubernatorial race has been "the craziest I've ever seen," resulting in odd political alliances.
"I don't feel I'm violating my Republican loyalties, I support other Republican candidates," he said.
Proof of Tancredo's resurgence came with the last financial reports, when he collected $220,000 – 10 times more than Maes – for a total $304,000. Tancredo said much of his support comes from opponents of illegal immigration across the nation.
Hickenlooper raised $387,000 from Sept. 30 to Oct. 13, bringing his total to $3.7 million.
Tancredo spokesman Cliff Dodge said anything can happen in a three-way race.
"Now we have Tom and Hickenlooper neck and neck and we've got a horse race," Dodge said.
"So much for baggage."