Choices for GOP in Third District

Five battle for shot at seat in Congress

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Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, quietly watches from his desk in Washington, D.C., as the race nears its conclusion.

The competitors: two state representatives, the former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, a county sheriff and a commercial airline pilot who is a decorated Gulf War veteran.

The prize: a chance to fill retiring U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis' seat in Congress.

The winner: anybody's guess.

On Tuesday, registered Republican voters across the expansive 3rd Congressional District will file into voting booths from Steamboat Springs to Pueblo to cast their ballots for who should battle Democrat John Salazar in November's general election.

In the five-way battle of same-party candidates, the difference may come down to whose message best resonates with the district's diverse population.

For Matt Smith, an attorney and state representative from Grand Junction, that message always has been water.

"This race really comes down to one major subject, and that's water," Smith said last month at a debate in Grand Junction. "Water is the most precious resource we have."

The four-term legislator consistently has attacked opponent Greg Walcher, former director of the DNR, for his support of Referendum A, a 2003 ballot initiative that would have provided $2 billion for water storage projects. Voters easily defeated the referendum, which was criticized by many as a potential Front Range water grab.

Smith also touts his legislative experience, saying he and fellow legislator Gregg Rippy are the only candidates capable of having an immediate effect in Washington.

Walcher, who owns a peach orchard in Palisade, said any support he gave Referendum A was more a result of his position in Gov. Bill Owens' administration. He dismissed Smith's assaults and questioned what Smith has done to create more water for the state.

"It's an example of everything that's wrong with the water debate in Colorado," Walcher said while in Steamboat last week, "politicians grandstanding instead of doing something about it."

Walcher, who defeated Smith for top line on the primary ballot at June's state Republican convention, has focused his campaign on fixing a federal government he says is too big and greedy. He supports making President Bush's tax cuts permanent, and advocates for additional tax cuts and doubling of the child tax credit.

"We're a sorely taxed people," Walcher said. "We need a break."

While Smith has focused his campaign on water, and Walcher has focused on a government that's "run off its tracks," Steamboat Springs' Matt Aljanich has focused his on the war on terrorism and homeland security.

The 37-year-old United Airlines pilot and lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserves said his intimate knowledge of the military and counter-terrorism efforts put him in a position to immediately have an effect in Congress, despite a lack of legislative experience.

"It's the most fundamental issue we face today," Aljanich said of the war on terrorism. "I really understand the changes that need to take place."

Among those changes, Aljanich said, are an increased investment in human intelligence and troop supplies. America's energy needs are directly related to the war on terrorism, he added. The United States must decrease its reliance on Middle Eastern oil and make an equal investment in energy resource development at home.

Like Aljanich, Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino says terrorism and homeland security are the biggest issues facing 3rd Congressional District voters. A career in law enforcement has provided Corsentino with the expertise to work toward effective security solutions, he said.

"It's probably the main reason I'm in the race," Corsentino said last week. "We will be subject to terrorist attacks in the future."

Corsentino said government needs to protect the country's infrastructures and people and have a plan to reduce fear when the next terrorist attack happens.

"I don't have the answer to all three, but I certainly have a guiding light," he said.

Besides his experience in law enforcement, Corsentino says he brings something to the race that none of his opponents can -- the ability to attract independent and Democratic voters in a general election.

"I'm tried and tested," Corsentino said. "I've won as a Republican in a Democratic county. No other candidate has done that."

Corsentino acknowledges that allegations of misconduct and unwanted sexual advances may have slowed his campaign, but he insists they didn't hurt it.

"We're past it, and life goes on," he said.

Unlike his four opponents in the primary, Glenwood Springs state representative Gregg Rippy opted not to pinpoint a single issue for the backbone of his campaign. Rippy, the owner of a paving and asphalt company, instead chose to focus on his range of experience, from his time in the statehouse to his work as the operator of a small, family-owned business.

"I like to say I bring the full package," Rippy said Thursday, shortly after receiving the endorsement of state Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. "I'm the only one who hasn't honed in on one issue and made it the focus of my campaign."

Rippy's campaign strategy isn't the only way he differs from his opponents. The socially moderate Republican doesn't support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and doesn't want to see the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision overturned and abortion made illegal.

"There will be some core people who won't see me as their candidate, and I know that," Rippy said. "All I can do is say what I believe in and let the chips fall as they may."

A national perspective

And when those chips fall Tuesday, Harmon and others with the National Republican Campaign Committee will be ready to offer their support to the winning candidate.

Harmon doesn't downplay the importance to both political parties of capturing the seat that McInnis held firmly for 12 years.

There are between 20 and 30 "truly competitive" U.S. House of Representative races across the country, Harmon said.

"Every seat counts," he said. "With so few races around the country that are truly competitive, it makes each race that much more important."

The NRCC doesn't endorse candidates during primaries, so Harmon and others have spent the past few months as quiet observers of the primary battle.

"In this case, we've got five people, all of whom would make a good congressman," Harmon said. "Whoever comes out of it has beaten some tough opponents."

Despite its hands-off approach in the primary, there is little doubt the NRCC will make its presence felt leading up to the November election.

"It's a district that's very important to the majority we hold onto," Harmon said. "We'll do whatever we need to do to keep the district in Republican hands."

The importance of holding onto the seat isn't lost on the candidates, either.

"This is one of the most closely watched races in America," Walcher said. "There's no doubt how bad Democrats want to pick it up and how much Republicans want to keep it."

Walcher, who has raised more money than any of his opponents, fully expects to win Tuesday's primary.

"I feel very good about where we are, which is to say, I expect to win," he said.

Of course, there are at least four other people who feel they have as good of a chance at claiming victory Tuesday. Which one of their messages rings true to the most voters will be something for the ballot counters to decide.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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