In the Tank

Why Tom Tancredo’s supporters think he can be Colorado’s next governor.

Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes

PUEBLO, Colo.—When Tom Tancredo arrives at his newest campaign office, the would-be governor of Colorado will have to sign some books. Copies of his book In Mortal Danger are on display and for sale, opened to the title page, ready to be Sharpied. Next to them are new, silkscreened shirts that portray a tank moving across a white plain. It’s a cartoon in three panels.

“I think I can!” reads the caption under the first tank.

“I think I can!” reads the caption under the second.

And then there’s a picture of a tank firing off a volley. “I KNOW I can!” reads the caption.

It’s the story, says volunteer Connie Traux, of Tancredo’s campaign for governor. In case it’s too subtle, she clarifies it.

“He sure as hell can!” she says.

“Rasmussen moved the race from ‘safe’ Democrat to ‘lean’ Democrat,” says volunteer Stephen Hodge, revving up another Tanc fan at the office. “He’s about where Scott Brown was before he won, so it can be done.”

In another election, with another candidate, this would seem silly. (It’s not totally bereft of silliness as it is.) The man who singlehandedly turned weeks of the 2008 presidential primary season into immigration debates? Mr. “Miami is a Third World country“? Mr. Literacy Test for Voting? But this really is the gubernatorial election that Colorado is stuck with, with Tancredo running a strong second place as a third-party candidate—and rising.

This is a surprise to everyone. For most of the year, Republicans expected former Rep. Scott McInnis to be their nominee against John Hickenlooper, the wonky and slapsticky mayor of Denver. (One of his TV ads shows him “washing off’ negative ads in a shower, fully clothed; another portrays him accidentally entering a rodeo.) And then, as has happened so many times in 2010, the candidate imploded. McInnis was revealed to be a serial plagiarizer, but the news broke too close to the primary for him to be removed from the ballot.

So Colorado Republicans engaged in a game of chicken. McInnis’ name stayed on the ballot, with the implicit understanding that if he won, the party leaders would replace him. But Dan Maes, a modestly successful businessman who had performed well in pre-primary caucuses, was on the ballot, too. Maes won. Thus began a pathetic scramble by Republican leaders to get Maes to quit, followed by him not quitting, followed by Tancredo jumping into the race as the Constitution Party’s candidate and tearing Maes apart. As soon as Maes started falling in the polls, Tancredo started being taken seriously.

“On Election Day,” the GOP’s candidate for Congress in the Denver-based 1st Congressional District tells me, “I will vote for the most conservative candidate who has a chance to win.” No need, or no attempt, to pretend he’ll back the Republican.

When Tancredo arrives at his new Pueblo outpost, he is greeted by Republican Party exiles he’s known for years. They are handing out fliers for a Saturday “Republican round-up,” illustrated with a cartoon of Tancredo wrangling elephants with a lasso. Tancredo’s supporters are far harsher on Maes than Tancredo is.

“Dan Maes is that little boy that wanted to fly so he climbed up on a roof and jumped off,” says Frances Mathews, a long-time Pueblo County activist who gets a long hug from the former member of Congress. She cribs a line from her candidate to explain what’s wrong with Maes: “They ought to have a literacy test for people who want to run for office.”

Tancredo has arrived from a pheasant hunt; he has not had time to shave or change out of muddy boots. He signs books, compliments T-shirts, and informs the crowd that he has momentum—but worries about whether enough Republicans will abandon their party for him. On the way to the debate, where he plans to use the facilities to clean up and shower, he explains why they might be stuck on Maes.

“The Tea Party folks, a lot of them, got into this in a different way than the usual Republican or Democrat,” Tancredo tells me. “They got into this with a lot of emotion. They were building a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington story. They put in a lot of effort, and when Maes starts to fall in the polls and gets attacked, they feel like they’re being attacked. I don’t know what it takes to overcome that, or if we can.”

That’s the phenomenon that’s boosted Tea Party candidates in every other state this year. On Tuesday, Sharron Angle, running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. announced that she had raised $14 million in the third quarter, in no small part due to how she presented herself as a giant-killer under duress from the giant. Rep. Michele Bachmann raised $5.4 million the same way, and Christine O’Donnell raised at least $2 million as liberals mocked her on TV. Before the Pueblo debate, as Tancredo straightens himself up, a contingent of Maes fans in red shirts (slogan: “The Peoples’ Candidate”) sit and grumble about how their man gets treated.

“He’s human,” says Owen Dean. “He’s a political amateur. That’s one of the things I like about him.”

Don’t the Maes fans worry that they’ll elect Hickenlooper?

“If that happens,” says Barbara Mattison, “it will be the Republicans’ fault.”

And what a thing to pin on them! If the rage of the Tea Party leads to a Tancredo/Maes split vote, it will elect a man who could have otherwise been an irresistible target. In their debate, Tancredo and Maes argue that government needed deep cuts; that Colorado needed Arizona-style immigration reform; that, in Tancredo’s words, “there’s no energy in a green economy and no jobs.” Hickenlooper rejects all of that and rejects three conservative ballot measures broadly supported by Tancredo and the Tea Party. He either declines to try, or fails, to match Tancredo and Maes on populist anger. Instead, he tells winding anecdotes about his experience as a brewer and restaurant owner. When immigration comes up, he punts, looks at Tancredo, and says, “I learned a long time ago not to debate the congressman on this.”

“I am learning to be a better debater,” he says sheepishly in his closing remarks.

“It’s hard to talk about things in one-minute, two-minute slices, right?” he explains to me when the whole thing is over. “You have to have a two-minute closing? Heck, I spent my life, or at least the last 15 years, in restaurants, trying to convince customers to sit there another four or five minutes so they’d buy dessert.”

Hickenlooper might not need to win debates. Unless Tancredo takes all of Maes’ votes, the Tea Party/conservative fratricide will actually save the Democrats. Maes calls the Tancredo surge a “mirage.” But he’s haunted by it. When the debate moderator reminds the audience that Maes did not participate in a coin toss to decide who’d close—Maes, star-crossed as ever, got stuck in a traffic jam caused by an escaping prisoner—he tries to turn it into a joke.

“Did I lose?” says Maes.

“Not yet!” yells a heckler.

“Oh, come on!” says Maes. He sighs.

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