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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas took his conservative re-election message into the state's swing-voting east Saturday in his latest effort chip away any advantage from independent candidate Greg Orman in a U.S. Senate race that has unexpectedly become one of the most hotly contested in the nation.
Roberts strolled the grassy hill to the south of Memorial Stadium before the University of Kansas football game, popping in and out of pregame party tents and chatting with voters in the Democratic-leaning city.
His message was distinctly partisan. With less than six weeks to go and facing a political newcomer who has tried to cast himself as non-partisan, Roberts stuck to his argument that the election is a referendum on President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"That really is the issue: whether (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid continues to be a one-man rules committee in the Senate," Roberts told The Associated Press. "They also know Orman is a liberal Democrat and a vote for Harry Reid. That really is the issue."
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the Senate majority from Democrats, and Kansas is one of about a dozen races nationally that could determine the outcome.
Until just this month, Roberts, a 78-year-old conservative from GOP-heavy western Kansas, was not viewed as vulnerable. Republicans have held every Senate seat in Kansas since 1938. But Democratic nominee Chad Taylor, under pressure from national Democrats, announced Sept. 3 that he would drop out of the race. The move was viewed as an effort to improve the odds of Orman, a 45-year-old wealthy businessman from the populous Kansas City suburbs, beating Roberts.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican and strong Roberts supporter, had refused to remove Taylor's name from the ballot, saying the Democrat's didn't comply with a law limiting withdrawals. But the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that he did.
Kobach said Friday that he would begin sending out overseas ballots without a Democrat listed, effectively making the contest a two-person race, though Kobach said he's not abandoning efforts to get Democrats to name a replacement. Another candidate, libertarian Randall Batson, is also running.
Recent opinion polls have suggested Roberts may be vulnerable in a head-to-head race with Orman.
Roberts, wearing a U.S. Marines cap and striped oxford shirt, found some supporters among the Jayhawks fans Saturday.
Paul Bahnmaier, a longtime supporter, recalled how Roberts keep open the Post Office in Lecompton, just west of Lawrence.
Nearby, Jim Setter of Overland Park, described himself as a Republican more than a Roberts supporter. "I don't care who it is. Whether it's him or someone else, it's about the majority," Setter said.
Orman ran for Senate in 2008 as a Democrat but dropped out of the primary. He has also made financial contributions to President Obama and others. He had also been a registered Republican and made contributions to GOP candidates.
"Senator Roberts' increasingly desperate campaign is turning to the only playbook his new handlers from Washington, DC know: throw out a lot of baseless negative attacks, and continue to try to divide people along partisan lines. Kansans of all parties are fed up with the broken system in Washington. They want an independent voice in the Senate, and that's why every day more and more Republicans, Democrats and Independents are supporting Greg Orman for Senate."
Orman's press secretary, Sam Edelen, said in a statement Saturday night that Roberts was reverting to "baseless negative attacks" while trying to "divide people along partisan lines."