The first poll of candidates running for the U.S. Senate in Colorado (at least the first poll not done by a candidate) was released by pollster Floyd Ciruli yesterday. As The Grand Junction Sentinel writes:

Polling data issued Thursday shows five-term Congressman Mark Udall, D-Colo., and former three-term Congressman Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., are running neck and neck among Colorado voters for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.The Ciruli Associates poll showed 35 percent of Colorado voters support Schaffer and 36 percent of voters support Udall.Twenty-one percent of Colorado voters are undecided in the race, according to the poll.Mike Melanson, Udall’s campaign manager, said the poll clearly shows next year’s Senate race will be tight.However, Melanson said the poll shows Udall winning over the second-largest voting bloc in the state: unaffiliated voters.The poll shows Udall leads Schaffer among unaffiliated voters, with 34 percent saying they support his candidacy. Nineteen percent of unaffiliated voters said they support Schaffer’s candidacy.

Campaign polls should always be taken with a certain grain of salt, particularly this far out from Election Day. This time in 2005, Republican Bob Beauprez was leading in the polls in the race for governor; one year later, Beauprez was crushed by Democrat Bill Ritter after running one of the worst statewide races in recent memory. Keeping in mind that these early polls don’t portend anything necessarily, it’s still interesting to read between the lines in the Schaffer camp’s response:

Walt Klein, Schaffer’s chief campaign consultant, said the poll results should come as “a cold bucket of water” to political observers who have declared Udall as the de facto next senator from Colorado.He said the Ciruli poll should at least diffuse some of the widespread beliefs circulated on state and national Web blogs that outgoing-Republican Sen. Wayne Allard’s seat will flip Democratic next year.”Why wouldn’t you expect at the outset, 14 months before the election, that the race would start out as a dead heat?” Klein said. “It’s baffled me why anyone would think otherwise.”

Sign #1 that your campaign isn’t going well: You celebrate a poll that shows you running are neck-and-neck with your opponent.Klein’s happiness at running even with Udall is understandable given that Schaffer’s own poll had him five points back earlier this summer. It’s also understandable when you consider that there are 180,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Colorado; not only should Schaffer be at least even with Udall at this point – he should be ahead in the polls (as Beauprez was in 2005). What Klein does not mention, however, is Udall’s strong lead among Unaffiliated voters; it is this group that will ultimately decide the race.Udall’s campaign is no doubt confident about this poll for the same reasons, but also for a less intuitive reason: They want people to think that this is a close race. Schaffer obviously needs people to believe that this is a close race because he needs supporters to think he has a real chance at winning, but Udall wants that perception for a different reason. The majority of political observers see Udall as a strong favorite in this race because of his fundraising lead and because he’s the more moderate of the two candidates, but Udall’s campaign doesn’t really relish the “favorite” label; Udall doesn’t want donors and other potential supporters to think he has this race in the bag, because then Schaffer becomes the public underdog. In that scenario, any momentum from Schaffer becomes exaggerated and allows him to play up his position as David versus the Goliath.The 2008 Senate race is Udall’s to lose, which is a pretty common belief among political observers. Udall just hopes you don’t tell anyone.