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Pivotal Colo. race focuses on teen drinking

Salazar and Coors after a Sept. 11 debate in Grand Junction, Colo.Ed Andrieski / AP

Control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of the race here in Colorado between Democratic state Attorney General Ken Salazar and beer company executive Pete Coors.

But instead of being a deep-think referendum on national issues, in recent days the campaign has been shadowed by sheer happenstance of heartbreaking front-page news: Two college students died in the past three weeks, each after drinking heavily in fraternity houses.  One was a 19-year-old Colorado State University student; the other was 18 and attending the University of Colorado.

Pouncing on the fact that Coors seven years ago called for a consideration of lowering the legal drinking age to 18, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired off a fund-raising e-mail Thursday morning.

Scoffing at GOP strategists in Washington, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked, “Do they actually believe someone like Pete Coors who wants to use his influence to lower the drinking age can be entrusted with our children's futures?”

At a campaign stop in Greeley, Colo., Thursday afternoon Coors denounced Durbin’s comments. “I’m offended that a senator would stoop to using this false allegation to try to raise money for my opponent,” Coors said.

The brewery executive called the deaths of the two students “a terrible tragedy” and mentioned that the Coors company has education programs to deter teen-age drinking.

Coors said the decision on the drinking age “is a state’s right issue.”

He noted, “I have never had it (lowering the drinking age) as part of my platform; I’ve never had it as part of my policy. It was brought up by (his ex-rival) Bob Schaffer in the (Republican) primary to try to embarrass me and make it look like I was an advocate for lowering the drinking age. I am not an advocate for doing it; as a United States senator I wouldn’t use my influence in that way because it’s a state’s rights issue. If Sen. Durbin was familiar with the Constitution, he would know that the 21st Amendment gave the states the right to regulate alcohol beverages, including drinking age and blood alcohol levels.”

Coors added it was the federal Department of Transportation that pressured states to raise legal drinking ages by threatening the loss of highway funds.

“That was bureaucratic blackmail from Washington, D.C., and I don’t believe the states ought to be subjected to that kind of blackmail,” he said. 

Students gather outside the Sigma Pi fraternity house in Fort Collins, Colo., Monday, Sept. 6, 2004. Police suspect drinking contributed to the death of a Colorado State University student whose body was discovered over the weekend in the Sigma Pi fraternity house. It's not clear what Samantha Spady, 19, a sophomore business major from Beatrice, Neb., was doing in the Sigma Pi fraternity. Her body was discovered Sunday evening in a lounge by a fraternity member giving a tour of the house to his mother. (AP Photo/Dennis Schroeder, Pool)Dennis Schroeder / POOL ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

Asked whether the drinking age is now an issue in the race, Democrat Salazar said, “the death of the two kids puts a spotlight on the problem of underage drinking.” He added, “It would be irresponsible to take the drinking age from 21 back to 18 and I think Pete Coors’s history in that one is one he can’t escape from. He made this speech in 1997 or 1998 when he said that was his position that he thought it ought to be lowered to 18 and it was used against him in the Republican primary.”

In a Sept. 14-18 survey of 600 registered likely voters, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli found that Salazar and Coors are locked in a statistical tie.

Trying to win a Senate seat in a state has trended increasingly Republican since Bill Clinton carried it in 1992, Salazar portrays himself as a tough-on-crime non-ideologue.

“I’m not a partisan guy,” he repeatedly says, decrying, “the excessive partisanship of Washington today.”

His radio ads tout his support from law enforcement groups. “As attorney general, Ken Salazar won thousands of appeals to keep … murderers and rapists in prison,” one radio ad says. He “went to the Supreme Court to uphold Colorado’s death penalty.”

Alluding to Coors’ personal wealth, the ad argues that Salazar has “what we need in times like these: experience money just can’t buy.”

Coors spent $400,000 of his own money in his primary election battle with Schaffer; Coors campaign manager Sean Tonner said Thursday that Coors “reserves the option to put more money in October.”

As non-partisan as Salazar might hope to be, what would he do as senator if the Democratic leadership asked him to join a filibuster against a Bush judicial nominee? “I would hope all nominees get up or down votes,” Salazar answered. “And the decision on an up-or-down vote should be based on whether or not the president’s nominee is qualified for the position.”

He said a mandatory up-or-down confirmation vote on any nominee within 120 days of the nomination being submitted (an idea that Bush himself has advocated) “is a thoughtful proposal and maybe one that should be pursued.”

Salazar also noted that he had joined in a letter of support with other states’ attorneys general for a Bush appeals court nominee from Idaho, William Myers, who was blocked by Senate Democrats’ filibuster threats on July 20 from getting a confirmation vote.

Disputed claim of non-partisanship
Coors, himself an orthodox tax-cut-supporting economic conservative,  ridiculed Salazar’s claim to be non-partisan. “It rings hollow, because when he gets to Washington, knowing the way the Democrats operate in the Senate, he’s going to have no choice but to become more partisan.”

In his stump speech, Salazar invokes Republicans John McCain and Chuck Hagel to validate his criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy.

While Salazar supports Kerry, he is not exactly effusive about the Democratic nominee and so far has not campaigned with him on any of Kerry’s three trips here.

Asked whether he will campaign with Kerry down the home stretch, Salazar said, “I probably will. I like Sen. Kerry and if he is in town when our schedules coincide we will do things with him.”

“He has his own race to run and I have my own race to run,” Salazar added. Asked whether he supports Kerry because he thinks Kerry would do a better job than Bush in confronting terrorism, Salazar said, “I think that Sen. Kerry would implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission faithfully and that there would not be politics played with issues of foreign policy and war.”

Is the United States in a “quagmire” in Iraq — a word used in the latest Kerry TV ad? Salazar said, “I agree with what Sen. McCain and Sen. Hagel said: We are in the midst of a very difficult time in Iraq and the administration really doesn’t have a good plan for us to figure out how we’re going to complete the mission.”

'Not a quagmire'
Coors said Iraq “is not a quagmire. It is a military challenge right now. … We’re not going to get out of there in a big hurry. It’s very different than Vietnam because we had no military strategic justification, in many ways, in Vietnam. Clearly in Iraq, we are fighting an enemy that is terrorizing the people; fanatics who have said their cause is to kill all Americans and anybody who goes along with us. I think that’s a legitimate military purpose and we should stay the course.”

Coors added, “I’m proud of George Bush and Congress for sending our troops over to Iraq so they could fight the war there, so we don’t have to fight it here. We need to continue to give them all of our enthusiastic support. Not to say, ‘I support our troops — but I don’t think we ought to be in Iraq.’ Anytime we say that, our enemy says, ‘America does not have resolve.’”