A New Papa Grizzly

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Colorado, with its funky mix of liberal college cities and rural farming towns, ritzy ski resorts and barren tracts of mountain land, is a 2010 bellwether state. The statewide races are toss-ups, and factors beyond the platforms are playing big in most races. Gubernatorial hopeful and former Republican representative Scott McInnis keeps taking hits after a plagiarism scandal, which has led some to call for a brand new candidate awfully late in the game. My colleague Alex Altman dissected the GOP senate primary’s bickering over who’s the biggest outsider in a race where the candidates are a veritable “Can You Spot the Difference?” cartoon. And the state’s third congressional district has become a hot spot for national Republican endorsements of candidates who are trying to unseat three-term Democratic Rep. John Salazar in a part of the country carried by Bush and McCain.

First to get a boost was state legislator Scott Tipton, who was endorsed by conservative pundit Dick Morris. But that shout out was soon overshadowed by a rival Bob McConnell’s new weapon: the Sarah Palin stamp of approval. McConnell, a veteran and lawyer who got into the game by riding the Tea Party we’ve-had-enough wave, aggressively courted Palin after she expressed interest in the race. On Monday Palin posted an endorsement of McDonnell on her Facebook page.

Her justification, emblematic of the message-over-substance theme riddling so many races, was largely based on his background—mainly his military record and family-man status, topped off with mentions of his mountaineering feats. The one policy position she mentioned was his plan to “return our country back to our Constitutional roots of limited and fiscally responsible government.” That rather vague goal is standard Tea Party fare, and seven Tea Party groups have gotten behind McConnell as he gears up for the August 10 primary.

Unlike Palin’s announcement, McConnell gets into specifics about what his belief in more limited government means. In an interview with TIME, he said he’d like to see investigations into the possible elimination of the following institutions, amongst others: the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts. The workload of those organizations, he says, would be better off on the shoulders of the states. McConnell is by no means the first to call for the (pretty unrealistic) elimination of such federal agencies, and it’s an overhaul echoed by a sign McConnell once carried to greet Obama in Colorado: “Angry mob of one.” He also wants to see senators elected to two-year rather than six-year terms, the income and estate taxes curbed (if not eliminated) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann become speaker of the House.

So will the Palin brand help bring McConnell to Washington? Her endorsement record so far is checkered: nine wins and five losses, with 10 races yet to be decided. She begins her McConnell post by admitting, “An endorsement’s impact may be fickle and, as I warn the endorsed candidates, is oftentimes a double-edged sword.” But McConnell couldn’t be happier. “It’s huge and the timing could not have been better,” he says, noting the proximity of the primary. “She’s a lightning rod, and she recognizes that … so we went into this knowing that, but the power of what she brings to this national debate is important to me. I’m a man of courage and faith, and she’s a woman of courage and faith, and I like that. And I will stand beside her.”