DENVER, Oct. 15- It is a question that would have shocked the old line, hard-right conservative patriarchs of the clan begat by Adolph Coors: Is Pete Coors, nationally famous beer magnate, scion of old money, and now candidate for the United States Senate, Republican enough to win in Colorado?
The answer will help decide the control of the Senate and perhaps even the presidential race, as demographic changes and a deft campaign by Mr. Coors's opponent have put this traditionally Republican state up for grabs. It is a strange year in politics in this state, and many of the old boundaries and allegiances are not adding up in predictable ways.
One big reason is Ken Salazar, Colorado's attorney general and the Democratic Party's Senate candidate, who often as not out-Republicans Mr. Coors. Mr. Salazar, a Hispanic rancher and lawyer whose family has been in New Mexico and Colorado since the 1500's, has twice been elected to statewide office at least partly on the basis of his appeal in the rural, Republican areas that Mr. Coors - a 58-year-old political novice - needs in order to win.
Mr. Salazar, 49, is also benefiting from the surge in the number of Hispanic voters, many of whom are eager to send one of their own to Washington.
The stakes of their race, for a seat being vacated by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, are potentially enormous as a Senate majority swings in the balance, and they are entangled as well with a close presidential contest between President Bush and Senator John Kerry.
President Bush has led in most polls here, which probably helps Mr. Coors if Bush voters stay true to the party. By contrast, Mr. Salazar's popularity - he has led Mr. Coors in most polls, though often not by much - might help Mr. Kerry, raising speculation among Democrats that if Mr. Salazar's coattails extend to Mr. Kerry, his clout could extend all the way to the White House.
Mr. Salazar clearly knows the conservative-minded garden he cultivates. In a debate this week in Denver sponsored by the Allied Jewish Federation, an audience member asked the candidates about affirmative action. It was a red-meat question of the sort that liberals and conservatives have bloodied one another over for decades. Unfortunately for Mr. Coors, Mr. Salazar got to go first.
"I agree with Gerald Ford," Mr. Salazar declared, quoting the Republican former president, who has spoken and written widely about the value of an inclusive society. Then, for good measure, he quoted Sandra Day O'Connor, the conservative Supreme Court justice, defending the practice in some circumstances.
Mr. Coors went next. He talked about the inclusive values of diversity at his brewing company that have been incorporated in recent years, and then, in his frustration, ended up praising the party of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.
"Ken has repeatedly tried to align himself with moderate Republicans," Mr. Coors said. "He should really be speaking about the wonderful things done by his own party."
One of the great unknowns in the Colorado race is where the estimated 150,000 or more new voters added to the roles this year in registration drives - including tens of thousands of Hispanics - will end up on Election Day. Mr. Salazar, by far Colorado's most prominent Hispanic politician, is expected to get many of those votes. But Mr. Bush is also popular among Hispanics, polls show, which could benefit Mr. Coors.
"There are substantially greater numbers of young voters and Hispanics - that's the real sleeper in this race," said Ted Halaby, the state Republican chairman. "But it's unknown and unpredictable as to who it will benefit, and to what degree."
Democrats and Republicans agree that the Republican advantage in voter registration numbers will remain substantial on Election Day - estimates range from 175,000 to 190,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, with both dwarfed by unaffiliated voters.
But supporters of Mr. Salazar say they think that a new political geography has also emerged, and this Senate race is its first test. Urban Democrats and suburban Republicans, both mostly centered in eastern Colorado, will cancel each other out, they say, elevating the importance of the rural vote.
"Colorado is pretty divided along partisan lines, and people in the rural areas are much more independent," said Jim Carpenter, Mr. Salazar's campaign manager. "And because this race is so close, where the rural vote goes, I think, is going to make a big difference."
Republicans say Mr. Salazar's vaunted rural popularity has really never been tested.
"Salazar is a nice guy and that's part of the reason he got Republican votes in running for attorney general," Mr. Halaby said. "But now people are going beyond that in looking specifically at issues and the candidate's stance, and they also know if you're voting for Salazar, you could very well be voting for Democratic control of the U.S. Senate."
National political experts say the risk to Republican Senate control posed by Mr. Salazar is possible but hardly a sure thing. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter in Washington, classifies eight Senate races around the country, including Colorado's, as too close to call. To gain control of the Senate, the Democrats would have to win seven of those contests, according to Cook's analysis, or six if Mr. Kerry is elected and Senator John Edwards, his running mate, presides over the Senate as vice president.
But if Colorado's rural voters do decide this election, pollsters say it might be on the basis of purely local considerations, not the broad ramifications that could result.
Mr. Salazar led the opposition to a ballot referendum, defeated by voters last year, that would have authorized $2 billion in water projects. The projects, many people in western Colorado said, would have benefited the urban core around Denver at the expense of the less populated west.
"He helped defeat the bond issue - that's a huge subtext for him out there," said Floyd Ciruli, the president of Ciruli Associates, a nonpartisan polling and research firm in Denver that recently put the race at a dead heat. "It shows he's not an urban liberal."
Sometimes both Mr. Salazar and Mr. Coors seem dwarfed by the implications of their contest.
Mr. Salazar often appears cautious, and often frames his words with lawyerly hedging, and sentences that begin with the phrase, "at the end of the day."
Mr. Coors, who has taken a leave of absence from his job as chairman of Coors Brewing, often admits to his audiences, usually with a lopsided grin, that his real-life experience is in business, not the cagey wiles of politics. But that has not stopped Mr. Salazar or the Colorado media from pointing out Mr. Coors' occasional stumbles in the linguistic thicket.
In the midst of one recent debate, for example, he named North Dakota as a security threat to the United States. Though he quickly corrected himself and said he meant to say North Korea, newspapers had huge fun describing the grim threat posed by the nation's northern tier.
At another recent debate, Mr. Coors - after being repeatedly goaded by Mr. Salazar that resolute support for President Bush's policies would make Mr. Coors a "rubber stamp," for the administration - finally took the bait and uttered the day's indelible sound bite.
"I am not a rubber stamp," Mr. Coors said.
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