GOP in fight to hang on to Colorado congressional seats

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— Facing voter discontent over everything from Iraq to the House page scandal, the GOP has placed its hopes for retaining one of Colorado's two open congressional seats in 36-year-old Rick O'Donnell, whose most prominent campaign ad of the moment is an apology for a youthful indiscretion.

Not sex or smoking pot, nothing like that. No, O'Donnell says he is sorry for writing a term paper 12 years ago calling for the abolishment of Social Security.

"I was wrong," he says in a solemn voice. O'Donnell says he has since enrolled his mother in Social Security and proposes that experts start from scratch to identify a permanent fix.

In a nutshell, the race for the largely blue-collar 7th District seat in the Denver suburbs has become a battle of experience vs. youth and the Democrats think former state lawmaker Ed Perlmutter has a great chance at grabbing the seat GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez gave up to run for governor.

Democrats are also hoping to pick up the governor's office (GOP Gov. Bill Owens is term limited). Some also believe Democrat Angie Paccione has a chance at knocking out GOP Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in the 4th District and the party might even capture the 5th District seat being given up by 10-term GOP Rep. Joel Hefley - a seat that's been in Republican hands since its creation in 1972.

In that race, GOP state lawmaker Doug Lamborn is in a nasty fight with Democrat Jaw Fawcett, an Air Force veteran who is counting on support from moderate Republicans. It's helped that Hefley accused Lamborn of running a "sleazy" primary campaign in refusing to endorse him.

Lamborn and Fawcett have clashed over the Iraq war, immigration policy and abortion, with a recent debate including at least one expletive and Lamborn warning an audience member to shut up. He later apologized.

"This is probably the worst Republican year since 1974, when they were crushed by Watergate," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster.

Perlmutter, a 53-year-old attorney, has repeatedly accused O'Donnell of being a potential rubber stamp for President Bush. In his party's national radio address recently, Perlmutter referred to O'Donnell's long-ago term paper and predicted Republicans would try to overhaul Social Security with a "dangerous" plan that would cut benefits to senior citizens.

"We can and must stop them - right now, before it's too late," he said.

O'Donnell, meanwhile, has tried to portray his opponent as a wealthy attorney out of touch with the hardworking populace of a district where the median income in 1999 ranged from $55,541 in Arvada to $33,680 in hardscrabble Commerce City.

The district is considered a national barometer because it's nearly evenly split among Republicans (113,007 registered voters), Democrats (119,164) and unaffiliated voters (121,768), who tend to avoid midterm elections but often back Democrats when they do turn out.

Still, the most recent poll gave Perlmutter only a slight lead over O'Donnell - 45 percent to 39 percent, with 11 percent undecided and a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. O'Donnell also leads in fundraising with $1.7 million to slightly more than $1 million for Perlmutter.

Both candidates have criticized the behavior of Republicans over improper e-mails sent by former Rep. Mark Foley last fall and said House Speaker Dennis Hastert should resign if he knew about the brewing scandal.

"If anyone had information that led them to believe pages weren't safe and they didn't act on it, those people should be held responsible and removed from office," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell has also tried to distance himself from Bush by declaring the president's policies in Iraq have failed. He pinned it on a "failure of leadership" by Bush, the secretary of defense and generals.

The prompted Perlmutter to call in military veterans who criticized O'Donnell. For his part, Perlmutter said he supports Rep. John Murtha, who has made repeated calls for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sylvi Braathen, a 59-year-old businesswoman who said she is unaffiliated with either major party, is backing Perlmutter because he supports the government's National Energy Renewable Laboratory in Golden.

"I like what Perlmutter stands for. I really like renewable energy," she said.

Lou D'Aureo, a lifelong Republican, said he twice voted for Beauprez because he had the "firepower" to get things done in Washington. D'Aureo, 62, said he is sticking with the GOP because of O'Donnell's plan to support research for fuel cell technology and other innovative programs that would jump-start the economy and make the United States less dependent on oil.

"All we hear from Ed Perlmutter is what's wrong with the country," he said. "We know what's wrong with the country. We know we pay too many tax dollars out and we aren't getting anything back."

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