09/20/2010 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Betsy Markey Giving Up?

Just days after national Democrats confessed to the New York Times that they may jump ship in their support of Betsy Markey's hotly contested bid to continue representing Colorado's Fourth Congressional District, Markey's own actions suggest she may be having her own doubts, too.

As announced by the Ft. Collins Coloradoan's Bob Moore late last week, Markey backed out of an Oct. 16th debate, to be co-hosted by the Coloradoan and NBC's Denver affiliate, because she didn't agree with a ground rule limiting candidate participation to only those individuals polling at 10 percent or higher with voters. The rule would have excluded the American Constitution Party's Doug Aden and independent candidate Ken Waskiewicz from participation.

The restriction represents a reasonable threshold and a widely accepted debate format, one that NBC and the the Coloradoan are using for all other debates they will host this election cycle.

As Moore explained in an email, "We believe that means giving voters access to the thoughts of the candidates who are most likely to win the office sought. This is not a standard we invented; the Commission on Presidential Debates has followed this approach for decades. Indeed, our standard of 10 percent is lower than the 15 percent threshold set for presidential debates."

I first met Gardner a decade ago when we both worked as Republican staffers in the U.S. Senate. While elected officials and aspiring staffers are typically categorized as either work horses and show horses, Gardner is both. While he'll speak to just about any reporter who puts a microphone in his face, he also backs up whatever he says with facts. On any of 20 hot issues, he can ramble off a multitude of budget figures, statistics, personal stories, and broader analysis. And when he's wrong, he admits it.

Perhaps it's this skill set that has Markey scared. Or maybe she perceives that the only way she can prevail with voters is by mandating the distraction of two third party candidates who have no shot at victory. But Gardner only shines more in crowded candidate arenas. While Gardner, who just celebrated his 36th birthday, can't avoid a youth that leaves him somewhat vulnerable with some voters, he prevailed over a crowded GOP primary field this August that originally included several older and impressive contenders.

If other candidates make Markey's demand that any candidate on the ballot be included in every debate, we could see such events filled with so many candidates that voters would never legitimately gain a real sense of the race's core issues or even the candidates themselves.

In Colorado's current U.S. Senate contest, headlined by Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck, Markey's formula would mean that between seven to ten candidates would take the stage.

As every seasoned political strategist preaches, candidates should attack and engage when they are vulnerable to defeat. Markey has missed this basic point and unfortunately, avoiding a debate with Gardner is just one of several missteps she has suffered of late. Most notable, and perhaps at the core of her refusal to debate, is her lack of cohesive or viable message to voters. Responding to dismal poll numbers two weeks ago, Markey spokesman Ben Marter responded to the Coloradoan that "the more people hear about Representative Gardner, the less they trust him. He can't run from his hypocrisy or his outrageous special interest-driven record forever."

But how will voters hear this if Markey won't tell them? And if her whole pitch is that Gardner will only represent the rich guys in suits, she simply doesn't know her opponent at all the way that voters and political insiders do.

Throughout his three-term tenure as a state Representative, Gardner has taken on dozens of special interest groups. He has stood toe-to-toe with taxpayer-funded lobbyists to demand more accountability in higher education, he has investigated ingenious green energy incentives for rural ranchers, and he has championed greater protections for homeowners facing the unjust prospect of eminent domain abuse.

Polling now shows Gardner up, and perhaps considerably so, over Markey. When survey respondents were asked to choose between the two (and not the race's two minor party candidates) Gardner's lead is up to 11 points. When Aden and Waskiewicz are added as options, Gardner's lead shrinks slightly, but not enough to leave Beltway Democrats convinced that Markey can hold the seat. According to the aforementioned New York Times report, the national Democratic machine is on the verge of pulling out of the race altogether.

"We are going to have to win these races one by one," U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Times, confessing that in the absence of Markey gaining ground this month, the party would divert its resources to more competitive races.

While the National Rifle Association's endorsement of Markey last week made a big splash, her support of gun rights won't be enough alone to persuade the vast majority of the district's pro-gun activists to vote for her. Gardner's record demonstrates that he has consistently supported gun rights, and ultimately, given the partisan aspect of the nation's gun debate, undecided pro-gun voters are going to side with Gardner over Markey, who can't escape ties to widely held perceptions of an anti-gun agenda supported by the current Presidential administration.

If only Gardner weren't so damn likable. My support of his candidacy isn't just some knee jerk Republican reaction. In fact, when Gardner first announced his candidacy last year, I chose to instead support his most competitive primary opponent, University of Colorado Regent Tom Lucero. Several months later, however, I did something I swore I'd never do. I jumped ship to the Gardner camp and even sent his campaign a check. The reason: even though Gardner is more socially conservative than I'd prefer on some issues, he has proven time and again that he's one of the most effective and astute coalition builders holding office under Colorado's Capitol dome today. He doesn't govern with the intent of telling people how to live their lives; rather, he fights to get the government out of our lives so we can live.

Gardner's exactly what Washington needs in its current stagnant, depressed state. Should his district's voters elect him, and regardless of their ideology, they'll inevitably get a bang for their buck. No one else could possibly approach the job with more passion or commitment. And one thing's for sure. We know he'll show up for the job every day, even on the toughest days as an underdog.