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Udall, Gardner preparing for first face-to-face debate

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DENVER -- To prepare for the first debate of Colorado's U.S. Senate race Saturday, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has been practicing with a stand-in for his Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner -- former state Senate President Brandon Shaffer, who ran against Gardner for his congressional seat in 2012 and lost.

Gardner has been practicing with a handful of stand-ins for Udall, who is seeking a second six-year term, ahead of their first showdown at Club 20 in Grand Junction Saturday night where Gov. John Hickenlooper and GOP challenger Bob Beauprez are also set to debate.

Both races appear to be extremely close but the battle between Udall and Gardner, which could determine control of the Senate next year, is the main event.

It's Gardner's first chance to go head to head with Udall, whose campaign has been notably aggressive since the two-term congressman's late entrance into the race in February.

"We know he's a very polished debater," said Udall for Colorado press secretary Kristen Lynch. "Mark is not the best debater in the world, but he's going to hold Cory accountable for a number of his votes and positions."

Gardner's campaign also looked to downplay expectations ahead of the Saturday night showdown.

“Members of the Udall political dynasty have always been known as masterful debaters and Mark Udall is no exception," said Chris Hansen, Gardner's campaign manager. "When Mark Udall participated in his first political debate, Cory Gardner was still in college, so we’re expecting a strong performance from this savvy veteran on Saturday."

Political analyst Eric Sondermann said the first debate takes on magnified importance because of the amount of media attention and its potential to set in place expectations and a narrative for the debates that follow.

"Each candidate goes into the debate with different imperatives," Sondermann told FOX31 Denver. "For Mark Udall, he needs to project confidence and take the fight to his opponent without flailing.

"For Cory Gardner, he needs to come across as credible and reasonable. In tone as well as substance, he needs to put to rest the notion that his views are scary or somehow outside the Colorado mainstream."

The week leading up the debate has offered a glimpse of the attacks both campaigns have at the ready.

On Wednesday, the Udall campaign blasted Gardner for sponsoring a 2007 bill to criminalize abortion that would have resulted in doctors who provide abortions being sentenced to up to 12 years in prison, more than what rapists currently face.

Gardner's campaign fired back at Udall over a quote he made during a 2008 debate in response to a question about health care reform.

"I'm not for a government-sponsored solution," Udall said.

In the Denver Post article on the subject, Gardner said that "Udall was elected on a lie."

Udall's campaign shrugged off the attack, noting that the Affordable Care Act is not a government takeover of healthcare.

On Thursday, Udall's campaign pointed to an Associated Press report undercutting a new TV ad from Gardner's campaign in which the candidate touts legislation he sponsored in 2007 that he "co-wrote the law to launch our state’s green energy industry."

It's true that Gardner sponsored the bill that created the Colorado Clean Energy Development Authority, earning him a shot-out from then-Gov. Bill Ritter in the 2008 State of the State Address.

But it's also true -- although conveniently left out of Gardner's ad -- that the law was repealed five years later after being deemed useless.

"Gardner’s claiming credit for launching Colorado’s clean-energy economy and he did not. Coloradans did that and Coloradans deserve the credit," said Chris Harris, Udall's communications director.

During the debate, Gardner will likely look to add definition to the tag line in that same ad that presents him as a "new kind of Republican."

"This message is essential for Gardner in that the typical Republican has not been marketable in Colorado over the last decade," Sondermann said.

"But given the President’s sinking approval numbers, Mark Udall similarly needs to present himself as 'a different kind of Democrat' and this debate offers an opportunity for him to do the hard work of putting some distance between himself and the Obama-led Democratic establishment in Washington."