In last-stretch Pueblo face-off, Udall, Gardner fire up supporters

PUEBLO, Colo. — “I think it’s safe to say this is a lively audience,” said debate moderator Steve Henson with a foreboding chuckle after about three minutes straight of cheering, jeering, whooping and hollering from the crowd when Senate candidates Mark Udall and Cory Gardner took the stage at Memorial Hall in Pueblo last night. The two candidates grinned from behind their respective podiums, shifting on their feet like boxers before a big match. “I encourage you to support the candidates — that’s great —” Henson continued, “but please don’t heckle.”

The audience of several hundred heeded the request almost not at all.

At the third debate this week in one of the tightest and most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, people weren’t there to make up their minds about whom to vote for. They were there to show their stripes and root for their guy.

“Oh, I’m for Gardner,” said Laurie Newman, as if it went without saying. “Sure, there’s a few things I disagree with him on,” said the admitted lifelong conservative from Colorado Springs, “but he’s still got my vote, I’ll tell you that.”

The hall was closely divided but leaned Gardner. People wore campaign t-shirts, buttons and stickers. There were also “Benghazi matters” pins and NARAL patches sewn to backpacks.

The diehards filled the front rows.

“In this forum, you can see what [the candidates] are really like,” said Jennifer Allphin, 35, from Pueblo. She said she is a Republican but that the relentless bombardment of TV ads from the campaigns and from mysterious outside groups makes it hard to know where the candidates actually stand on the issues. “I hope they get into the details, not just the generalities.”

But candidates prefer generalities. Gardner concluded his opening remarks with a tried and true crowd-pleaser. The second-term Congressman said he would spend his six-year term in the Senate “making sure there’s less Washington in Colorado and more Colorado in Washington.”

Udall said he wants to raise the minimum wage, pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, increase funding for Pell grants, and put an end to tax credits that encourage companies to move jobs overseas. His supporters filled in the blanks between each item on the list with applause and cheering.

The debate was moderated by managing editor of the Pueblo Chieftain Steve Henson who opted for a more unbridled format than his Denver Post counterparts did at their debate earlier this week. There, Post editorial staffers Lynn Bartels and Chuck Plunkett pressed the candidates to answer specific questions, which the candidates plainly avoided answering. Their non-responses, particularly Gardner’s, have become a story at the heart of the race.

But in Pueblo, Henson’s unintrusive style left it to the candidates to hold each other accountable. The result was no more successful: boos and hisses abounded after every non-answer. “Fuck off, liberal!” someone shouted when Udall dodged a question about his support for a bill that would have made all undocumented immigrants felons.

Udall tried and failed to pin-down Gardner on his support for hardline anti-abortion personhood proposals.

The two men accused each other of being so-called culture warriors — Gardner for his voting record and policy positions; Udall for having the audacity to keep bringing up Gardner’s record in the campaign. Gardner said Udall underpaid his female staff. Udall asked Gardner to support equal-pay legislation. Gardner kept saying Udall “voted with Obama 99 percent of the time.” Udall said Gardner was ranked the tenth-most conservative member of Congress. Tancredo never cracked the top 50, Udall was quick to add.

“You can tell they’ve done this debate before,” Allphin remarked after it wrapped.

Indeed, only the details set this contest apart. Following a question about how the country should handle the deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa that killed a man in Texas this week, Udall commended the diligent screening processes in place. Gardner said he’d stop all incoming flights from affected African countries. Udall reminded the audience that Gardner voted to cut $3 million from the Center for Disease Control budget.

Topics specific to Southern Colorado surfaced occasionally. Udall called Pueblo a city of heroes and praised it for its robust steel industry. Gardner said that more steel could be put to use in building the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada across the U.S. plains states. Both candidates took credit for protecting water in the Arkansas Valley and accused each other of jeopardizing it. Gardner evoked the moniker “Forgotten Colorado” to describe the parts of the state that have lagged as the rest of the economy grows. Unemployment in Pueblo is above 6 percent. He blamed Democratic economic policies.

And throughout the debate, the crowd never let up:

Udall voiced support for women’s access to birth control.

“You’re a baby-killer!” someone shouted.

Udall mentioned immigrants.

“Send ‘em home!” somebody else yelled.

The moderator asked about Islamic State terrorists.

“They’re here!” came a response from a middle row.

Udall said that Gardner voted to deport young-immigrant so-called Dreamers.

“Thank you!” came the shouts.

Gardner said something about an all-of-the-above energy strategy.

“We love fracking!”

Next Tuesday, Colorado clerks will begin mailing ballots to every voter in the state.

[ Mashup Udall-Gardner debate image by Nat Stein. ]