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Will GOP hopefuls get rocky reception in Boulder debate?

Boulder, with its reputation for dyed-in-the-wool liberalism, will host forum for remaining GOP candidates

With its reputation as an enclave for dyed-in-the-wool liberals and hippies and its array of recreational marijuana offerings, it’s no wonder that some call it — both derisively and lovingly — the People’s Republic of Boulder.

But on Wednesday night, this town in Colorado in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains will take the national spotlight for a different reason, as host of the third prime-time GOP presidential debate, sponsored by CNBC at the University of Colorado. The top remaining White House aspirants will duke it out starting at 6 p.m. Mountain time; those polling at 1 percent or less will debate separately, beginning two hours earlier.

The debate is expected to be dominated by the economy, the theme of the event, but with wildfires periodically raging in Colorado — which some say are exacerbated by climate change — and the state being the first in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana, in 2012, the candidates may get questions about the environment and federal drug policy. 

While Colorado will be a pivotal swing state in the presidential election, in Boulder County, Republicans make up only 18 percent of registered voters, and Democrats have long controlled local politics, leaving some residents to scratch their heads over the GOP’s choice of locale.

“We’re all very surprised that the Republican Party is walking into our town,” said Morgan Young, the vice chair of the Boulder County Democrats. “We’re very glad to host them, of course, and to have the opportunity to raise our voices in opposition.”

Several protests are planned to greet the Republican presidential candidates, including one featuring two 14-foot puppets of Charles Koch and David Koch, the billionaire conservative donors who are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 elections, and another in which thousands of Latino activists are expected to rally against what they say is the GOP’s ugly rhetoric on immigration.  

Amy Runyon-Harms, the executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, an online progressive advocacy organization, said the Republican Party got off on the wrong foot by limiting to 150 the number of students and faculty members allowed to attend the event, reserving the bulk of seats for Republican officials and media.

“This was promised to the Boulder community and the [University of Colorado] community as a great learning opportunity, and it’s not going to be that at all,” she said.  

The Republican Party’s ideological opponents in Boulder noted that the town provides a sharp contrast to the ideas, values and policies being espoused by the standard bearers of the GOP.

“Boulder is an affluent town that is doing extremely well economically, and we’re not doing it by cutting taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent,” Young said. “We’re doing that by providing good government services and excellent schools.”

“So much of what these candidates stand for — in terms of being puppets of the Koch brothers and where they stand in terms of job creation and where they stand on green energy — is, frankly, opposite of where so many citizens of Boulder stand,” Runyon-Harms said. “It will make for an interesting dialogue.”

Some residents said they would like to see local issues addressed. Rachel Gillette, a Boulder-area attorney specializing in marijuana law, said she wants to know if GOP candidates would be open to reforming the tax code and federal banking practices to make it easier for marijuana shops to stay in business.  

“The Republican Party needs to get in tune in this particular issue, and unfortunately the Chris Christies of the world — those who want to go backwards instead of forward — they don’t stand a chance in this day and age because of those sentiments,” she said, referring to the New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential candidate who adamantly opposes legalization. “The Republican Party is a party that stands for freedom, and the real root of this issue is personal freedom.”

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