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Michael Bennet, John McCain and the positives of going negative

By Felicia Sonmez

Should Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have followed Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) playbook?

The Colorado senator, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in 2009 and has been the odds-on favorite for much of the past 18 months to win his party's nomination, is suddenly facing the fight of his life in next week's primary against former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Much like McCain -- who is visiting Colorado this weekend to stump for Republican Senate contender Jane Norton -- Bennet started off as a well-funded incumbent with plenty of establishment support. Both faced primary challenges from the extremes of their party. But that's where their similarities end.

McCain took an early, aggressive approach to his primary opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R), hammering him relentlessly for his record on spending, his years as a lobbyist and, more recently, his involvement in a "free government money" infomercial scheme. McCain's camp went up with radio ads hitting Hayworth as early as January; by the time Hayworth went up with his first television ad in July, McCain had spent more than $15 million slamming him and had already begun pulling away in the polls.

Bennet, meanwhile, waited to go negative against his primary opponent. He has spent a staggering $5.8 million on the race, but his first mention of Romanoff in a TV ad came only two weeks ago; until then, Bennet's spots were largely positive ones, including one that features his three young daughters and drives home the message that Bennet is out to "clean up Washington."

With polls showing Romanoff now tied with Bennet -- a Denver Post poll released last weekend had Romanoff at 48 percent and Bennet at 45 percent -- some observers are wondering whether Bennet might have been better served by pursuing a McCain-style "scorched-earth" strategy against his upstart primary opponent.

One Democratic operative who has been following the campaign closely but is neutral in the race called the Bennet camp's strategy "horrendous."

"I've never seen anything quite this disastrous," said the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race. "They wasted money; they wasted time. They let Andrew define this race."

The operative added that while Romanoff is running as a crusader against PAC and lobbyist money, "the absurdity of it is that Andrew's message is based on something that's not accurate."

"The only reason Andrew's in this is frankly because of Bennet's failures," the operative said.

Asked about the McCain camp's approach, McCain spokesperson Brian Rogers said that the campaign has sought to illustrate McCain's record and how he's been effective as well as to "very starkly define any opponent we had."

"I think it's been beneficial to be aggressive," Rogers said, noting that some other candidates this cycle, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I), took it easy on their primary challengers for months, only to see those challengers write their own narratives and, in Crist's case, overtake them in the polls.

"There are some people who would say, 'Oh, you're overreacting. Oh you'll be fine,'" Rogers said of the McCain camp's strategy. "But we're just really taking nothing for granted. I don't think you can in this environment."

Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid said that Bennet's camp is proud of the campaign it's run.

"We've made this race a choice between Michael's focus on solutions and Speaker Romanoff's politics as usual approach," Kincaid said. "Romanoff has tried to hide his true colors but after his campaign broke their promise to voters about special interests, egregiously lied about Michael's record and failed to denounce the support they're receiving from a shady 527 group, Romanoff has been revealed as just another politician who will say anything to win."

Kincaid also pointed to figures from the secretary of state's office showing that more than 210,000 Democrats have cast ballots so far in the mail-in primary. Those numbers are a result of Bennet "bringing new people into the process" while Romanoff's supporters are party insiders who are politically active to begin with, he said.

As the campaign enters its final days, the key question facing Bennet appears to be not whether he's above playing politics as usual, it's whether voters are as well.

By Felicia Sonmez  |  August 5, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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