Clowns to the Left of Me

Marc Holtzman's got a feeling that something in the Grand Old Party ain't right.

The ghost of Ronald Wilson Reagan haunts the Marc Holtzman for Governor campaign headquarters on South Broadway. Images of the nation's fortieth president beam from brochures, and framed photos of him hang on the walls. In most of the pictures, hovering somewhere near the Great Communicator is a mop-haired, bespectacled young man who happens to be the 1980s version of Holtzman.

A poster near the entrance identifies the 46-year-old Holtzman as a "Reagan conservative," in much the same way a poodle might be touted for its pure bloodline. Biographies of Reagan and memoirs by his aides are close at hand, in case the candidate needs to refer a visitor to some detail of his modest-but-life-altering association with the leader of the free world. A special packet of campaign literature targeting nostalgic GOP donors across the country features endorsements from two of Reagan's key advisors, former attorney general Ed Meese and personal secretary (and later ambassador) Helene Von Damm, as well as a handwritten note from "Ron," circa 1979, urging his handlers to find a spot for nineteen-year-old Marc in his campaign: "He's really a remarkable guy."

Fresh-faced staffers scurry about, answering phones and fetching documents. Many of them aren't much older than Holtzman was when he became the director of Reagan's Pennsylvania operation in the 1980 presidential race. And Holtzman, despite a long day of campaigning and a spate of recent setbacks, seems as relentlessly upbeat as his mentor.

This, Holtzman insists, is as it should be. "Ronald Reagan was a larger-than-life figure to me," he says. "It was his commitment to principle, his optimism, his boundless ability to make you feel good about yourself. I never saw him lose his cool."

If you read the papers, you might have the impression that Holtzman's bid to become Colorado's next governor is in crisis. Campaign manager Dick Leggitt resigned two weeks ago, after admitting that he made up poll numbers he'd fed to a Denver Post reporter. His departure came shortly after that of two other top aides, a press secretary and a field director. Holtzman and various staffers have been hauled into an administrative hearing over whether he violated campaign laws during his crusade last fall against Referendum C, which allows the state to keep tax revenues that otherwise would have been refunded under the TABOR amendment. (A ruling on the case is expected in the next few days.) He's in a pitched battle over procedure at the May 20 state Republican convention that was supposed to have been resolved long ago but still could compel him to petition his way onto the primary ballot. And opponents in his own party have unveiled an attack ad that insinuates that Holtzman has more in common with Bill Clinton than Ronald Reagan.

But there's no panic around Holtzman headquarters. Maybe it's the bottle of ginseng extract Holtzman keeps on hand, slipping a drop under his tongue for a burst of energy. Maybe it's the ghost of the Gipper. Like his hero, like a long line of fiercely grinning Republican leaders, Holtzman seems impervious to bad news. There might be afternoon thunderclouds gathering outside, but in this room, it's morning in America.

"I'm pleased," Holtzman says, assessing his progress in the race. "I started this campaign as an asterisk. No one took me seriously. I'd never been elected to public office before. But I've made a concerted effort to talk about issues, to talk about my vision, and I think that's really differentiated me from my primary opponent."

His critics tend to use a lot of punctuation marks besides asterisks to describe Holtzman -- e.g., "That @%%&*#~!!!" His upstart candidacy has created an even more tumultuous situation within the GOP than Bob Schaffer's primary run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, when the party leaders preferred Pete Coors -- a beer peddler who'd never held elected office and was ultimately beaten by Ken Salazar. This time around, the anointed one is Representative Bob Beauprez, who wants to trade in his two terms in Congress for Bill Owens's job. Owens, Senator Wayne Allard, Representative Tom Tancredo, Bruce Benson and other Republican heavyweights have thrown their support to Beauprez.

Both Holtzman and Beauprez present themselves as hardline conservatives: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-illegal aliens, anti-spending, that kind of thing. But Beauprez, a dairy farmer turned banker who has deep ties to the state's GOP establishment and a public persona of exceptional blandness, is widely perceived as the more electable candidate -- particularly in a race against the Democrats' single offering, Bill Ritter, the earnest but wooden former Denver district attorney.

Holtzman has only lived full-time in Colorado for eight years and has earned little name recognition, despite serving as Owens's technology czar and as president of the University of Denver. Still, he's built on the contacts he made in the Reagan administration and as an investment banker in post-Cold War Europe to assemble what admirers have called the largest Rolodex in the world -- now converted to a hefty palm pilot -- and his animated, occasionally fiery debating style has given Beauprez a run for his money. On top of that, there's his personal history; did I mention his connection with Ronald Reagan?

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