Udall cruises past Schaffer

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— Four years ago on a snow-slicked road outside Silverton, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall stood in the aisle of a campaign bus and laughed at the idea he was too liberal to ever get elected statewide.

He's still laughing.

Udall managed to shake the "Boulder liberal" label to beat former Congressman Bob Schaffer in a race billed as one of the most competitive nationwide.

"I tell you, I am ready to lead. You are ready to lead. America is ready to lead," Udall told an estatic crowd at the Democratic Party celebration in downtown Denver.

In the end, the contest wasn't even close. Schaffer lost the critical Jefferson and Arapahoe swing counties, and his own county, Larimer, which had propelled him to three terms in Congress.

It went down as the most expensive Senate race in Colorado history. Outside groups spent more than $26 million, mostly on TV ads attacking Udall's or Schaffer's records.

That bothered voters like Bernard Foley, 93, of Northglenn, who voted for Udall.

"If half of the stuff they put on the TV, if just half of it is true, neither one of them should be in office," he said.

Udall said he will reach across the aisle to get the best ideas, whether they are Republican or Democratic ideas.

"It's just soaking in," Udall said in his hotel suite just minutes after the Rocky Mountain News declared him the winner. "I am truly honored. I have a lot of work to do."

Udall's victory - and that of his cousin Tom Udall in New Mexico's Senate race - signals the passing of the torch to a new generation of Udalls.

And it validates Republicans' fears in 1996 when Udall was first running for the state Legislature that with his family name and Western roots, he'd be dangerous in years to come.

"My family has been following his family's involvement in politics for years," said Alan Grimes of Denver, a 23-year-old graduate student who voted for Udall.

This was Udall's second but only serious attempt at becoming a U.S. senator.

The congressman from Eldorado Springs entered the 2004 race, but dropped out less than 24 hours later when Attorney General Ken Salazar announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for the open seat.

Crushed, Udall nonetheless rallied on Salazar's behalf, joining him on his campaign bus tour through Colorado that October. It was on that trek that the "too liberal to win" comment tickled Udall, instead of ticking him off.

His easygoing manner stood out on the campaign trail. Dressed in a denim or Eddie Bauer shirt and Levis - waist 34, length 34 - he talked in his folksy manner about the importance of bipartisanship, and of his late mother, whose roots in Colorado go back several generations.

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