LITTLETON, Colo. — To many Republicans, the Democratic "war on women" campaign against GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner is an outrage. But for Gardner himself, it is also a test.
How would Gardner react when incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and national Democrats accused him of scheming to deny women access to birth control? The accusation seemed ridiculous, but what if Colorado voters took it seriously?
Gardner certainly took it seriously, and he reacted by taking two steps. First, he abandoned his earlier support for so-called personhood measures that Democrats charged would lead to bans on some forms of contraception. And second, he called for the birth control pill to be made available over the counter.
After that, even though Udall kept up the attack, the punch of the "war on women" began to weaken. The Udall campaign officially learned that its strategy wasn't working when the Denver Post endorsed Gardner and excoriated Udall's "obnoxious one-issue campaign."
How did Gardner do it? On Saturday, I rode with him between get-out-the-vote stops in the Denver suburbs, and I asked him to take me through the thinking that led him to change his positions on personhood and the pill.
"Those are both policy decisions," Gardner began, "realizing that I was wrong to have supported personhood because of the implications that it could have — and it's important to recognize that — and then also recognizing that we should be about policies, and we should be about solutions."
Just to be clear, I asked what he meant by the "implications" of personhood. "The people of Colorado have soundly defeated it, overwhelmingly, time and time again," Gardner told me. "If there is any possibility that it could impact contraception, that's not something that I support."
On the question of over-the-counter birth control pills, Gardner explained that Democrats claimed there was a problem, the possibility of reduced access to birth control, so Gardner proposed an actual policy solution. It appears the Udall camp wasn't expecting that.
"They want to stick on division, and they want to stick on politics," Gardner said. "They don't want solutions, because it hurts their ability to campaign."
Gardner's mid-course change seems to have worked. He has been ahead in 13 out of the last 15 public polls compiled in the RealClearPolitics average. His gender gap with women voters has narrowed, while Udall's much bigger gap with men has widened.
The fact that Gardner appears to have successfully turned back the Democratic attack probably owes as much to what is universally referred to as his sunny disposition as to any specific policy proposal. Gardner's campaign appearances are remarkably positive in their tone, probably because he's that way in person, too.
Riding in the car — Gardner doesn't have a campaign bus — Gardner recalled seeing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speak at a House Republican retreat a few years ago. "One of the comments he made there was that it is hard to hate up close," Gardner told me. "I took that to heart."
The idea is, if you work closely with people, pay attention to them, and be straight with them, it will be harder for most of them to work up a true loathing for you, the way they can with some politicians.
"My grandma had this saying," Gardner, who is 40, continued. "She said, 'Sometimes you just have to squeeze the merchandise.' It means that people want you to wear well, they want to have a good feeling about you. And I think that makes a difference in this campaign."
Another image Democrats have sought to create is that of the angry Republican. The label irritates some in the GOP, but not Gardner, because he believes there's something to it.
"I think that's a big problem for Republicans," he told me. "There are a lot of people in this race who look at Mark Udall's campaign and say he's the Republican in this race, because he's angry and dour and mean."
That was a clever touch; calling for a more positive Republican party while also taking a little jab at your opponent. But Gardner is genuinely concerned about the GOP. "Republicans have a problem when we don't present an optimistic vision for this country," he told me. "And we've been stuck in an opposition mode."
A candidate with a naturally positive disposition who can admit it when he's wrong and come up with solutions to problems. That's the kind of candidate who can win.
Republicans are definitely feeling it. "2010 was the angry year," said one state political operative at a Gardner event, referring to the GOP's disastrous loss in the last Senate race in Colorado. "This is the energized year. It's dour versus sunshine."