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Tough room

Amid echoes, labels and Bruce, county GOP talks shop (and shops for cars)


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Candidates signs, even in multiples, fill the landscape - outside the GOP meeting. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • Candidates signs, even in multiples, fill the landscape outside the GOP meeting.

Despite unmoving lines, getting into the county's Democratic Party assembly and convention two weeks earlier was easy.

I waved a notebook, said I was a reporter and freely entered Palmer High School, where party regulars and newcomers filled seats, lined walls and blocked stairs of an overstuffed auditorium.

But on this Saturday at the local Republican assembly, contrasts with the Democrats are evident from the start. A neat row of tables waits inside the Phil Long Expo Center, and there are no lines at 10:30 a.m., when the party's main meeting is set to begin. (It was past noon when Democrats seated all their delegates.)

Most delegates chosen at the Feb. 5 caucuses have already checked in, freeing them to move behind a line of curtains to a massive meeting area lined with thousands of folding chairs.

I try to pass through a break in the curtains, but am rebuffed.

"You need a guest pass," a woman says, pointing me to a nearby table.

There, another woman checks my driver's license before providing a name tag to wear around my neck.

I enter the assembly, walking down a long corridor set off by candidate and issue tables on one side, new Mercedes and Audi automobiles on the other. I assume the cars are leftovers from another event, but I am wrong. El Paso County Republicans have rented about three-quarters of the cavernous, concrete-floored space; nearby car dealers have rented the rest. Some delegates browse during breaks in the political action. A beige Audi coupe actually sells.

Nathan Fisk, the party's county executive director, smiles at that news.

"We're Republicans, so we're capitalists," he says.

Bruce in a barrel

The tables offer glimpses of other Republican priorities. Kristi Burton, youthful co-sponsor of a proposed state amendment to recognize fertilized eggs as people, stands with her family collecting signatures. Bruce Nozolino, opposing the Colorado Springs Stormwater Enterprise, rallies support for two local measures from state Rep. Douglas Bruce that would force the city to find other ways to fund drainage projects.

Nozolino says he's collected 100 signatures in just 90 minutes, "just like shooting fish in a barrel."

Despite Nozolino's success, Bruce has reason to feel a little like one of those fish.

Since the former county commissioner was appointed in December to fill the House District 15 seat, he has lived in a swirl of controversy. And this morning, delegates in Bruce's district vote 139-105 in favor of his challenger, political newcomer Mark Waller. The result could hint of struggles to come as Bruce seeks his party's nomination. Though he gets the needed 30 percent to make the Aug. 12 primary ballot, Bruce's name will appear underneath Waller's.

There are few other surprises as delegates pick candidates for House, Senate and county commission districts, the main business Saturday. The full group only meets together for about two hours. About 2,000 delegates and dozens more alternates listen to a succession of speakers and hear the intricacies of picking delegates who will go on to state and congressional district assemblies.

The sound system booms. Greg Garcia, county GOP chair, talks about efforts to bring a "business model" to the local party. He apologizes for an echo that sometimes makes it difficult to hear, then rallies the crowd: "We're bringing back Republican values as we know and love them."

The immensity of the room and the echo make it difficult to gauge responses to the speeches that follow. Retiring U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard receives warm applause, as do U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and Jeff Crank, one of Lamborn's two challengers in the 5th District race.

Passion for Paul

Charles Aligaen, county organizer for Rep. Ron Paul's presidential bid, receives perhaps the most passionate applause during a shorter-than-expected speech. Originally prepared for five minutes, Aligaen says he had to struggle with party officials to get one minute to argue for an improbable cause.

"I did not become a Republican to vote for a liberal," he tells the crowd.

Paul supporters holler in agreement. One man waves a sign over his head, trembling with excitement.

County Commissioner Wayne Williams speaks on behalf of Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.

"Like most of you, I supported someone else," Williams says, explaining that he backed Mitt Romney, who dropped out days after an impressive win in Colorado's Feb. 5 caucuses.

"I am enthusiastically supporting John McCain now," he says, to cheers and a few boos.

"Hell, no," one man says under his breath.

Back at the Paul table, supporters are optimistic. One man congratulates Aligaen for his not-so-subtle criticism of McCain, saying: "That was the best line."

The table is stocked with posters, pamphlets, stickers and T-shirts, and volunteers do brisk sales. Aligaen expresses frustration with how media members have treated Paul, saying, "We're still in the race."

McCain's nearby table is more spartan, with sign-up sheets awaiting volunteers and a single sign tacked overhead with the candidate's name. On Feb. 5 in the county, McCain got 1,649 votes to Romney's 6,507 and Gov. Mike Huckabee's 1,870; Paul received 991.

McCain's local volunteers say they are just getting started here.

"It's pathetic," Joan Bennett says, laughing slightly. "We don't have anything."


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