Club 20 hosts governor, senate debates as election draws closer

Lynn Bartels --- The Denver Post 

Coloradans who love a good political fight will be treated to a spectacular showdown Saturday night in Grand Junction as the main contenders for the U.S. Senate and for Colorado governor take each other on for the first time.

Club 20, an influential Western Slope organization, for years has hosted top-ticket debates on the first Saturday after Labor Day. This this year's contest features some tight races between the major party candidates.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Congressman Cory Gardner, are in a statistical tie and are expected to spare no punches as they stand just feet apart and spar over Obamacare, women's issues and energy — a vital subject on the Western Slope.

Then's there the debate between Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and his GOP challenger, former Congressman Bob Beauprez.

At one point, the GOP had all but conceded that Hickenlooper would coast to re-election, but his stances on the death penalty and gun control have Republicans believing they have a chance of doing what hasn't been done since 1962: kicking an elected governor out of office.

The Club 20 debate is viewed by longtime politicos as the official kickoff of the fall campaign.

"I think it's a great Colorado political tradition, and I hope it stays that way," said Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

He has watched the fate of candidates rise or fall based on their performance at Club 20.

Democratic political consultant Mike Stratton has been attending since 1978. Although the audience typically leans Republican, he said most of the attendees have an independent spirit and vote for the candidate, not the party.

"It's a big deal," he said.

But the debates aren't the only show at the event, said former state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, a Republican formerly of Grand Junction.

"Club 20 is one of the few times when all the top brass and the top dogs from both parties are in the same room, kind of all at once," Penry said. "Those hallways are the original no-spin zone. The candidates will get peppered with more tough questions by rural county commissioners and small-town business types in those hallways before and after the debate than they will by the moderator during it."

Candidates will set up booths at the Two Rivers Convention Center. Campaign volunteers and staffers will stand outside and wave signs and honk horns — and sometimes hurl insults — as part of the pre-debate activities.

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