TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Pat Roberts' quickly retooled Senate campaign is emerging, and it already sounds different from the quiet races he's run in the past.
The Republican has a new team in Topeka and is meeting this week with his old staff to prepare them for a swift departure from the genteel politics he's come to represent during his three terms.
As if to make the point that the gloves are off now, new campaign manager Corry Bliss, who replaced Roberts' longtime campaign chief Leroy Towns, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Roberts' campaign planned to portray challenger Greg Orman "as a dishonest, flip-flopping liberal Democrat masquerading as an independent."
Roberts, seeking a fourth term in Republican-dominated Kansas, was surprised by the decision last week of Democratic candidate Chad Taylor — nudged by Democrats in Washington — to quit the race. The move appeared designed to bolster the campaign of Orman, a wealthy businessman from suburban Kansas City running as an independent.
Taylor's name isn't off the ballot yet, because Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative Republican backing Roberts, said the Democrat didn't comply with a state law limiting when candidates can withdraw. But Taylor filed a petition Tuesday with the Kansas Supreme Court to get his name removed.
The Democrat's actions last week sparked a quick reaction from national Republicans, who worried that Roberts suddenly was vulnerable. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats in the November midterm elections to win control of the U.S. Senate, and just about everyone was expecting Roberts to cruise to an easy victory in Kansas, which hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
Within days, Bliss and veteran national GOP strategist Chris LaCivita were on the ground. They discovered a campaign adrift. With just eight weeks until Election Day, Roberts hadn't aired a single campaign advertisement. In the meantime, Orman has spent more than $900,000 on television advertising.
Bliss said Roberts' campaign effectively began Saturday, when the senator and Orman met to debate for the first time in a raucous encounter before a live audience of roughly 2,000 at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
"Kansas needs someone in Washington with convictions and a backbone. I don't think my opponent has either," Roberts said during Saturday's debate.
As Roberts telegraphed during that debate, his campaign's theme will be an attempt to define Orman as a relative unknown with a record of having contributed financially to both Democrats and Republicans, while painting Roberts as, Bliss said, "in Washington, fighting the Democratic agenda Mr. Orman has enabled."
The comment is aimed at underscoring Orman's past contributions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Orman campaign spokesman Sam Edelen said the campaign's approach underscored Roberts' "long history of putting extreme partisanship ahead of problem solving," and said, "Voters across Kansas are sick and tired of the finger-pointing by both parties."
Bliss said Roberts will be taking on staff with experience in nationally pivotal races, and expects to begin advertising soon, though he wouldn't say when.
Roberts hasn't faced a serious challenge in his three campaigns for Senate, each of which he has won by carrying no less than 60 percent of the vote. Registered Republicans account for roughly 44 percent of Kansas' registered voters, compared with 24 percent for Democrats.
But Roberts only narrowly beat back a competitive primary challenge last month from Milton Wolf, a tea party-backed doctor raised in central Kansas. It exposed Roberts' potential weakness — namely, that he's too linked to Washington.
Wolf criticized Roberts for not having sufficient ties to the state. Roberts is registered to vote and pays taxes in Kansas, where he owns and rents out a Dodge City duplex, but he primarily lives in Alexandria, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C.
The shift in campaign tone is similar to Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's late-campaign pivot during his primary challenge from tea party-backed Chris McDaniel in June.
But while Cochran's campaign and outside groups ran ads harshly critical of McDaniel, Cochran himself seldom referred directly to his opponent.
That's a risk for a candidate like Roberts, who, like Cochran, is established in the minds of voters as someone who is above the political fray, said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who supports Cochran and organized an outside group to advertise against McDaniel. According to Barbour, "What you didn't see was Sen. Cochran talking about his opponent."