It was, once again, a headline-free Republican primary debate, meaning that the winner was, once again, Tom Tancredo.
Bob Beauprez was folksy. Mike Kopp was heavy on family and resume. In the very conservative crowd, Scott Gessler was the closest thing — and yet, not close at all — to a moderate. None of them did or said anything to boost their chance of winning.
He wasn't there. Of course, he's never there. And being the man who isn't there is working remarkably well for him in his run to be the Republican nominee for governor.
The stunning thing is that in a four-way field, only three are participating in the debates, and the one not participating — the one, in effect, flipping off the home-town Republican electorate — is presumed to be the leader.
And even more stunning is this: The other three let Tancredo get away with it.
The debate, held at Colorado Christian University, allegedly was about the GOP, race and women. The event proved only that the candidates had little to say about women's issues and that most of the questioners — a panel of women addressing the all-male Republican field — didn't know what to ask. Abortion didn't come up. Neither did equal pay or personhood or birth control. But there was the priceless moment when the whole thing was introduced by music from "The Dating Game," which may offer real insight into why Republicans keep losing in Colorado.
And so the night came to be about what someone described as the elephant in the room, meaning the elephant who wasn't there.
One in the panel did put the question directly about the two missing candidates. (Somehow, she included John Hickenlooper, who was invited, as one of the missing — as if the governor were somehow expected to join a Republican debate.) Beauprez waved the question off, saying to let Tom be Tom. Gessler said all candidates learn something from debates, forgetting, I guess, that he had blown off one himself. Only Kopp had something semi-pointed to say, though he left his best stuff for a shot at Hickenlooper.
"I believe Tom should be here," Kopp said about Tancredo. "When a candidate will not subject themselves to this rigorous process of vetting, of describing their views, of standing up and defending their views, I have real questions about that. Tom should be here."
About Hickenlooper he said, "Mastering the art of motion without consequence is no way to lead a state." That was the big applause line.
Why won't any of them say more than that about Tancredo? Because there's risk, of course. There is the real risk of standing alone when Tancredo and his loyal Tancredistas accuse his critic of playing into the hands of Democrats.
It wasn't until the next morning that Scott Gessler, at a safe remove from his opponents, lashed out in a Colorado Springs Gazette op-ed. The Gazette had suggested the way to solve the Tancredo problem was for Gessler and Kopp to drop out. Let's just say Gessler took exception.
He agreed that Tancredo "spells disaster" for Republicans with Latino voters and others and says that Beauprez dooms Colorado to be another Oregon. It was a political geography lesson.
"The decline of California Republicans began when the Latino community rejected Republicans. Now, the land of Ronald Reagan can no longer elect Republicans statewide. That is Colorado's fate under Tancredo," Gessler wrote.
"If Tancredo turns Colorado Republicans into California — where Republican have no hope — then Beauprez turns Colorado into Oregon — where Republican candidates continue to hope but always lose."
He said Republicans have grown too comfortable with losing and tried to make the case that despite all the baggage he carries around he is somehow different.
He is different from Tancredo. The Republican establishment isn't worried about finding a winner. Hickenlooper would be favored against all the GOP hopefuls, including Gessler. They just want someone who isn't Tancredo, the headline-stealer, the radical bomb-thrower, who would damage Cory Gardner's chances and Mike Coffman's chances and the chances of any other Republican trying desperately to move to the middle.
You've seen the Republican establishment in action, trying to latch onto Bob Beauprez as the last-chance kid, even though he lost his last chance at governor by an astonishing 17 points.
Tancredo told ace Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels that these same people are begging him to quit for the good of the party. You know what a kick he gets out of that. It's almost as big a kick as he got when Karl Rove told him never to darken the doorsteps of the Bush White House.
Gessler had no choice but to go after Tancredo. What's interesting is that he included Beauprez. It's a simple math problem. In the recent Georgia Republican Senate primary, which basically was a five-way, the leader got 30 percent of the vote. If Tancredo gets 30 percent, that would leave 70 percent for the other three. If Tancredo gets 35 percent, that would probably clinch it.
The list of Tancredo vulnerabilities is too large for this space. But we can start with one — the fact that during the time of the previous debate, Tancredo was in Oklahoma City on another out-of-state fundraising call, where he also took the time to call for the impeachment of not only President Barack Obama but also Eric Holder. Maybe that doesn't sound very governor-like to you.
It does sound talk-radio-like, which is how Tancredo usually sounds. He can't help himself. That's one reason he's so rarely on the stump in Colorado. That's why he has hit the mute button on the debates. It has turned into a great call for Tancredo, though he never could have guessed that his debate opponents couldn't bring themselves to call him out on it.