It's a critical time for Andrew Romanoff's senatorial candidacy.
There are no more caucus straw polls to win or county assemblies to ring up. And rival Michael Bennet's decision to petition his way onto the primary ballot (one Republican Jane Norton soon mimicked) makes the May 22 convention mighty anticlimactic.
That leaves debates against Bennet as Romanoff's principal way to shine -- and reviews of one this week were decidedly mixed. But Romanoff campaign manager Bill Romjue remains upbeat, despite a photo-doctoring controversy that dragged out far longer than necessary.
To put it mildly, Romjue, who makes Missouri his home base, is a veteran of the political game, having served a slew of high-profile candidates over the span of three decades-plus.
"I worked for President Carter in the Carter-Kennedy race in 1979 and 1980, and I also worked for Gary Hart" during his 1984 presidential bid, he says. "I started helping him out in Iowa in 1982. And after the '84 convention, I went to work with Dick Gephardt," the longtime Missouri representative, who ran for president in 1988. "I basically put his presidential thing together; I was his national political director. And I also worked for Bob Kerrey, Chuck Robb and John Edwards in their initial races."
Given a track record like that, why did he sign up with Romanoff, who'd been shunned by the Democratic establishment that had once championed him because he'd decided to take on a vulnerable, recently appointed incumbent?
"I'd met Andrew years back at some sort of national thing and followed his career," he notes. "Since I got involved with Gary Hart, Colorado is one of the states I pay attention to. And when I came out to talk to him in December, he won me over because he was so forthright. You know, Missouri is a state that's similar in size and population to Colorado, and we've had two guys I call once-in-a-generation politicians: Dick Gephardt and Jerry Litton, who died in a plane crash back in the '70s. These exceptional politicians don't come along that often, and I put him in that class.
"There's something pretty special about him. And as a Democrat, I look at the 59 senators and 250 House members who barely got health-care reform through after all kinds of giveaways to special interests that don't really have much in common with the Democratic Party, and it makes me think we've got a serious deficit in leadership. I grew up in an era when we had great senators, and now, I look around and see how few we have that you can really admire."
Given Bennet's huge fundraising advantage, Romanoff will have a tough time joining this exclusive club. However, Romjue believes "Bennet has made himself vulnerable by indiscriminately taking money from anybody who'll give it to him."
He's referring to Bennet's willingness to accept donations from political-action committees. Romanoff has refused to do likewise, although he wasn't nearly so picky during earlier in-state campaigns. Romjue shrugs off this seeming contradiction.
"There's no evidence of a lot of corruption in Colorado at the statehouse level, or that money's made a big difference," he maintains. "But I think the thing that set him off was when he began to realize the power of these lobbies in Washington, cutting deals before a number of things were off the table [regarding the health-care bill] -- deals with the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance industry, that kind of thing. When he began to focus on running for the Senate, I think it was pretty clear to him that the last thing he wanted to do was have anybody think he'd be involved in those kinds of things."
Similarly, Romanoff doesn't want voters to suspect him of involvement in the doctoring of a photo on his campaign website, which was manipulated to put minorities in prominent places. At first, Romanoff dismissed the controversy before belatedly apologizing and removing the shot.
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"It was really much ado about nothing. That site's been up there for over seven months, and the photo was put up by a volunteer at the beginning of the campaign. Andrew didn't know anything about it, and there was never any intent for Andrew to do anything like that. He didn't even realize it'd been there. It was just one of those things where somebody on the Bennet campaign got out a magnifying glass and tried to figure out some way to hurt Andrew."
Why did the Romanoff forces allow this kerfuffle to dribble out over several days instead of immediately deep-sixing the image and moving on? Romjue acknowledges that "perhaps we made a mistake" by initially defending the photo instead of focusing on minimizing its impact -- "but I also think it's kind of ridiculous. It's the silly season in these campaigns, and this is an example."
True enough -- but such minutia can take on exaggerated importance during campaign lulls like the current one. Still, Romjue thinks his guy's performances will put such matters into perspective.
"Candidates develop a rhythm in campaigns, and he's really hitting it right now," he says. "He's a really hot candidate, and this is going to be a fascinating race."