Style points: Gardner in first debate smooth as silk

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — He was all lightning and silk when he spoke and his teeth flashed bright for the entire hour. Congressman Cory Gardner knew what was coming and seemed unflappable and full of energy in his Saturday night Western Slope Club 20 debate against U.S. Senator Mark Udall, whom he is hoping to unseat this November.

Gardner is the best candidate the Colorado Republican Party has to offer right now and he’s probably going to lose this race.

The congressman has been pushing hard for seven months. His campaign is flush and set to spend tens of millions of dollars. He has worked to tie Udall to President Obama relentlessly and Obama’s likability numbers for the first time since he took office in 2008 have dropped below 50 percent. Gardner has hammered away at “Obamacare,” a persistently unpopular concept even though provisions of the law the word refers to, the Affordable Care Act, are well-liked. In March, Gardner made the head-spinning decision to flip-flop on his longtime unpopular support for draconian anti-abortion proposals. And, last week, Gardner, who is a climate-change denier and a congressional champion of the oil industry, made a similarly breathtaking decision to paint himself in a TV ad as the man who helped “launch the green-energy economy” in Colorado.

Despite all of that, Gardner can not move the needle against Udall. All four polls listed at RealClear politics today has Udall up and the latest NBC/Marist poll, puts Udall in front by 6 points.

The Colorado contest is still technically one of the key tossups in the heated battle for control of the Senate, and a lot can change any day in these last two months of the campaigns, but the variety of smooth Gardner displayed in Grand Junction likely won’t give him the edge. He won on style, not on substance — and the thing is, substance might actually matter.

The Ghost of Ken

Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck is the figure hanging over Gardner’s candidacy.

Buck was the hardline conservative who ran for the U.S. Senate against Michael Bennet in tea party-wave year 2010. Buck won a tough primary by striking ultra-conservative positions and then he tried to moderate his image in the general election. Republicans and conservative independents loved Ken Buck. And, just like the election pitting Gardner against Udall, Buck was running in a midterm election. Midterms traditionally attract fewer voters than presidential elections, and the voters who turn out are older and whiter — and more likely to vote Republican. Yet Ken Buck lost. The message taken from that race has been that candidates running for one of the top-of-the-ticket statewide seats in swing-state Colorado need to win more than just the votes of conservatives if they are going to win.

Gardner on Saturday seemed too programmatic and unspecific, too full of phrases that sounded borrowed from conservative media to shake up those dynamics. As smoothly deflecting as he was, he still sounded like the tenth-most conservative member of the extremely conservative tea party House of Representatives — which he is, according to the National Journal.

“We need more Colorado in Washington and less Washington in Colorado,” he said.

“Mark Udall cast one of the deciding votes for Obamacare.”

“[Udall] is more Washington than Washington County.”

“Mark Udall has voted with Obama 99 percent of the time. We have to break the stranglehold and stop walking in lockstep with the president.”

When it came to exchanges on issues, Gardner was equally quick. But his record can’t be undone.

“When it comes to a woman’s reproductive rights and women’s health, how can women and families trust you?” asked Udall. “You voted for a class three felony bill that would punish doctors more than rapists. You voted against providing emergency contraception to rape victims. You supported a bill to defund Planned Parenthood… How can families and how can women trust you when it comes to staying out of their personal health care decisions?”

Gardner didn’t miss a beat. He also didn’t answer the question.

“Senator Udall, I look forward to growing an economy that makes sure that women have jobs in this country, the kind of jobs that they are lacking right now. I look forward to putting economic policies together that keep women in this country from struggling to make ends meet as they are under Barack Obama’s failed economy.”

When Gardner railed against “Obamacare” as government-run healthcare and admonished Udall for supporting it, his supporters in the crowd let loose with applause.

But Udall, on his heels and throwing slower jabs for most of the hour on stage, came back with a line that will surely become more effective in future debates.

“Congressman, government-run healthcare doesn’t exist in this country,” he said.

“We had a broken system. Insurance companies were in charge and Republican lawmakers had many years in power to address it. Now insurance companies can’t take advantage of [policyholders].

“You’ve done nothing to improve the healthcare system but vote for repeal… Fifty-plus times. We think the customers should be in charge. You voted to shut down the government… to take us backwards.”

Old Saws, New Saws

Ken Buck lost to Michael Bennet, the theory goes, because suburban Front Range women thought he was too extreme. A related theory is that, in post-2008 Colorado, where the Obama for America ground team has made clear that voter-turnout is the key to victory in this closely divided state and where Democratic campaign volunteers will swarm carefully selected neighborhoods over the next six weeks, old saws about Republican voters and midterm elections no longer apply.

Gardner’s well-prepared and well-brought-off performance in debate didn’t take any of the relevance out of those arguments. Is it likely that Gardner can turn the polls around and win Democrat-leaning voters with debate zingers and easily debunked TV ads?

[ Image: U.S. Senate candidate Cory Gardner in Grand Junction at the Club 20 debates. ]