Danielle Neuschwanger’s vow during her opening volley at a Republican gubernatorial forum to muzzle radical policies and end tyrannical government overreach instantly resonated with the crowd.

The Elbert County rancher sealed their approval with her direct, forceful delivery of answers to the seven questions posed to the candidates, her remarks bringing murmurs and nods of approval and hearty applause every time she spoke Saturday at a forum of eight GOP gubernatorial hopefuls in Canon City.

Castor announces the winner.

Ultimately, Neuschwanger was rewarded with 57 of the 101 votes in a straw poll.

Trailing in second place was Greg Lopez, a small business owner from Elizabeth, with 33 votes. The eleven remaining votes went to Darryl Gibbs, a truck driver from Aurora, 7; Jason Lopez, who lives in Morrison and is CEO of Nano Rx, 2; Jeffrey Fry, an oil and gas consultant from Hayden, 1, and Jack Dillender, a self-described healer who lives in Crestone,1.

The other candidates participating in the forum were Jon Gray-Ginsberg, a computer engineer from Frisco, and Jason Wilkat, a plumber from Firestone.

The crowd, mostly middle-aged or older from rural Colorado, came dressed in cowboy boots and hats and flannel shirts, eager to hear how the candidates would deal with issues such as agricultural water rights, ensuring the ability to maintain a migrant workforce while protecting the border from illegal immigration, bridging the urban/rural divide and how they would attract unaffiliated voters to beat incumbent Governor Jared Polis.

All the candidates said they would go through the caucus and assembly process to get on the primary ballot, although Wilkat added that if he failed there he would petition onto the ballot. The state GOP assembly is April 9.

Many of the candidates answered questions with generalities, sometimes offering up random ideas and occasionally wandering into vague national and international politics rather than addressing specific state issues and policies. Dillender, for example, brought up the Paris Climate Agreement and Davos (the site of the World Economic Forum) as he continually mentioned that we’re in a war between good and evil.

And there were the requisite jabs at Polis, including Ginsberg’s continual mention of Polis as a “man with two husbands.”

Neuschwanger and Greg Lopez, however, had their bullet points on specific issues ready for the one-minute limit for answers and their more specific responses seemed to give them the edge with the audience. (About halfway through the forum, moderator Ed Norden lengthened the answer time to 90 seconds.)

Neuschwanger homed in on reforms for the state budget, criminal justice system, and education, including better options for school choice, vouchers, and homeschoolers.

On immigration, she said the state must help the victims of coyotes and human traffickers and suggested that rescued victims be given a path to be part of the migrant labor pool.

The looming water shortage will require myriad solutions, including loosening restrictions on hydroponic gardening and water recycling in urban and suburban areas, she said.

“There is not a one-issue solution,” she emphasized.

Policy priorities for Greg Lopez include crime, school vouchers, and building coalitions throughout the state that will put “people over politics,” he said.

He said the state needs a red card program to have sufficient migrant labor, and noted that the border should be closed.

On the water issue, he said Colorado must actively protect its basins and aquifers because it is “running out of water.”

Wilkat weighed in on the immigration issues with a personal story, saying he was torn both ways. His wife came to the United States illegally, but he took her back and brought her in legally at a cost of $20,000, he said.

He believes there should be a smoother and less costly path to legal immigration.

Most of the candidates agreed that more open discussion and education were key in breaking through the urban/rural divide

“The only way we’re going to unite Colorado is to talk to each other,” Lopez said. “We need a governor who understands both (rural and urban) lifestyles. We’ve to go stop this fighting.”

Gibbs said there is a need for more education about farm life and how important farming and ranching is to the state.

Neuschwanger concurred but said the education about where food comes from must be on social media to reach the younger generations and she suggested partnering with nonpartisan organizations to make that happen.

Dillender suggested a state electoral college to better balance the votes of the rural and urban communities, along with promoting urban gardens.

Many of the candidates took issue with Norden’s question about attracting unaffiliated voters that included a reference to Colorado as a solidly blue state.

Neuschwanger noted that 50 of the state’s 64 counties are red, but thousands of rural residents did not vote. She said that focusing on issues that matter to all voters will bring more of them to the polls, including POMs – pissed off moms who are emblematic of those tired of being overlooked.

In her closing statement, she emphasized the need for everyone to get involved to ensure freedom and good governance.

“Today is about our future,” she said. “This is the hill to die on.”

Greg Lopez said most of the issues facing the state are people issues, not party issues and unaffiliated voters want problem solvers. He also said the GOP should look to attracting Democrats, especially within the Hispanic community.

Gibbs said if you take away the labels “we’re all Coloradans, we’re all Americans.”

There are currently 15 GOP candidates registered with the Secretary of State as active candidates for the Republican nomination for governor. Three Republican candidates have ended their bid for the state’s highest office, according to the state website.

Numerous candidate forums have been scheduled around the state, many of them charging for admission. Fremont County GOP Chairman Rick Castor said that Saturday’s event netted about $1,800 that will go into the coffers of the Republican candidate who will face off against Polis.

“Colorado’s going to go red,” he predicted.

Audience at GOP forum.