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It's debatable: Style proves biggest divide as Dems square off

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Since Jane Ard-Smith and her husband Davis have taken opposite sides in Colorado's Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate, an April 23 debate between the two candidates had the potential to be divisive.

But ... no.

"I couldn't have picked a clear winner," says Ard-Smith, an attorney and local Sierra Club chapter leader. She gives the slight edge to former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, whom she supports, based largely on delivery: "Romanoff is a more polished speaker."

By contrast, Davis Smith, a construction inspector for the Colorado Department of Transportation, saw Michael Bennet, appointed to the Senate in January 2009, make gains largely by holding his own against a skilled opponent.

"Seeing them side-by-side actually made me comfortable with Bennet," Smith says.

While those views may not square with the post-debate spin offered by either campaign, they highlight the challenges of a race in which style, rather than substance, is the main factor separating the candidates. (OK, make that style and money: Romanoff has sworn off contributions from corporations and political action committees, and has about $500,000 in the bank right now, compared to Bennet's $3.5 million.)

Though Romanoff has the edge among grassroots Democrats, Bennet's fundraising lead and incumbency put him in the driver's seat. As he did at their only other debate in February, Bennet took pains to emphasize his agreement with Romanoff on a range of issues, including a cautious approach to nuclear power and support for gay rights. Asked about differences between the two, Bennet said, "I honestly don't think there are any substantial policy distinctions."

About 200 people showed up at Colorado College's Worner Center for the one-hour debate, organized by the Independent and co-sponsored by NewsChannel 13.

One telling moment came near the end, when the candidates had the chance to ask each other a single question. Bennet looked ahead to the November election as he lobbed Romanoff a softball about possible Republican opponents Jane Norton and Ken Buck speaking in negative terms about education and energy.

"I wonder why they would take positions that are so out of whack with ... the people of Colorado," Bennet mused.

Romanoff agreed, then argued he's the best one to beat any Republican. For his question, he grilled Bennet on accepting a campaign contribution from a for-profit private college only days before the Senate banking committee took up financial reform legislation, which Romanoff said could have clamped down on predatory lending practices by such schools.

"Is that just the way Washington works?" Romanoff asked.

"The only time I'm reminded of Washington is when you and I are debating," Bennet responded, outlining his support for legislation that will allow federal student aid to be dispensed directly without private lenders getting in the middle. (Post-debate, Bennet's campaign has argued that Senate financial reform legislation actually would regulate these predatory loans as well.)

With no major gaffes, the debate probably won't change a lot of minds or build much support for either candidate. Romanoff brings charisma, charm and an aggressive style. Bennet comes across as thoughtful, sincere and unpolished. (He repeatedly banged his microphone as he gestured to make points.)

Which style would serve Coloradans and Democrats better? After the debate, local Democrat Lee Milner says he's still undecided.

"I think I'm going to end up voting for whoever has the best chance of winning [in November]," he says.

lane@csindy.com

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