This story was first published at 9:08 am.
Did Greg Orman, the wealthy businessman running as an independent in the Kansas Senate race, really call Bob Dole, the 91-year-old Kansas Republican political legend, a "clown"? Orman's remarks, just days before the midterm election, have set off a new round of sparring in his contentious race against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
It happened Friday, as Dole, along with fellow GOP luminaries Chris Christie and Haley Barbour, appeared at a Roberts campaign event. In recent days, other Republican bigwigs, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence and Ted Cruz, have campaigned on Roberts' behalf. So Orman was asked: What about the continuing series of national Republicans who have come to Kansas to campaign for the incumbent?
"It sort of seems like a Washington establishment clown car to me," Orman answered, according to a transcript provided by his campaign. "You know, every day a new person comes out of that car. You know, ultimately we have gone out and we have brought our case to the voters of Kansas, and everywhere I go, I hear the same things. Kansans think Washington is broken."
Not long after, Elahe Izadi, a Washington Post reporter covering Orman, tweeted: "Greg Orman referred to Clean Sweep GOP bus tour as a 'Washington establishment clown car.'"
In the heat of a campaign, a Democrat, or even a self-styled independent like Orman, could probably get away with referring to Christie, et al, as occupants of a clown car. But Bob Dole? In Kansas? The Roberts campaign was quick to jump on Orman's ill-chosen words. "If he wants to attack me, that's fine because I'm used to being attacked by liberals," Roberts said in a statement. "But Mr. Orman owes Sen. Dole an apology."
Roberts campaign manager Corry Bliss called Orman's words a "slimy attack" which revealed the independent candidate's "true colors." And then Dole himself reacted with a simple statement that bordered on bewilderment. "I don't think I've ever been called a 'clown' before," the World War II hero turned lawmaker and presidential candidate said. "I'm disappointed by Mr. Orman's statement."
Asked for reaction, the Orman campaign said Orman has said many favorable things about Dole and would never refer to the former Kansas senator as a clown. "Greg Orman has the utmost respect for Sen. Dole, and he obviously did not call him, or any other person, a 'clown,'" said Orman campaign manager Jim Jonas in a statement. "Once again Pat Roberts' campaign is trying to mislead voters with desperate false attacks to try to distract from his failed record after 47 years in Washington. It's sad that Pat Roberts would rather throw mud and make misleading attacks, than talk about the important issues facing our country."
So: Did Orman call Dole a clown? There's certainly an argument to be made that he did. Recall the 2012 Republican presidential primary field, which included not only Romney but Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Back then it was not unusual to hear the GOP field referred to as a "clown car." (The Boston Herald often referred to "the clown car nature of the Republican field.") It was reasonable to infer that the person calling the GOP field a "clown car" meant that the candidates were clowns. So it's not unreasonable to conclude that by using "clown car," Orman was calling the Republicans campaigning for Roberts, including Dole, clowns.
A larger question is whether that reveals Orman's true colors. Orman has in the past spoken admiringly of Dole, as in this statement on Orman's campaign website praising Dole's record of bipartisanship in the Senate:
Kansas has a record of electing candidates who think this way, like Bob Dole. When he recently toured the state, I was honored to have the opportunity to listen to him. He spoke eloquently, and at length about how our system isn't working today. Even though he was a proud Republican, he never shied away from working across the aisle to get things done. That is the mindset we must bring back to Washington.
That was then. Now, in the final days of a superheated and extremely close campaign, Orman refers to a "clown car," with Dole in it. Which represents Orman's real thinking? It's hard for anyone other than Greg Orman himself to say. Maybe he didn't intend to include Dole in the clown car — just meant to label Romney, Christie, and the others as clowns. But his words hit everybody. It was a unforced error at a crucial time, especially for a candidate seeking to present himself as an independent who can bridge the differences between the two political parties.