FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2014 file photo, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., answers a question during a debate with independent candidate Greg Orman in Overland Park, Kansas. Embattled three-term incumbent Roberts is taking the endorsement of a former Kansas governor and hitting the road to the stateâ€™s rural west, where he needs to win big on Nov. 4 to fend off challenger Greg Orman. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
LENEXA, Kansas — Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman on Wednesday decried a "broken political system that does not work for Kansas" in asking voters to join him in his surprisingly competitive challenge to veteran Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
Roberts, a high-profile endorsement in hand in this unlikeliest of battleground states, was setting out to bolster his support in the state's rural west, where he needs to win big to fend off Orman.
In defending his seat against charges that he's lost touch with Kansans, Roberts added another well-known name to the list of Republicans backing him, former Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate with appeal to voters Orman hopes to sway.
Orman unveiled a populist closing pitch in the more populous and diverse Kansas City suburbs, declaring in an evening speech that the election is a choice between "a system where Democrats and Republicans in Washington alike allow powerful special interests to rig the system for themselves ... and a new politics, where citizen leaders can come and take on the political elites and special interests and once again put the American people in charge."
The Senate campaign's geography signaled where the candidates believe they need to shore up supporters before focusing on undecided voters. Polls have shown the race to be a dead heat, despite Kansas' conservative leanings.
Republicans need to gain six seats to take control of the 100-seat chamber. They were not counting on having to defend Kansas, where only Republican senators have been elected since 1938.
Some in the GOP say they have been turned off by Roberts, whom they describe as drifting into the party's ideological right wing during the summer's hard-fought primary battle with tea party-backed Milton Wolf. The endorsement from Graves, who recorded a statewide radio ad for Roberts, was aimed at showing those divisions healing.
Roberts' team has brought in a weekly stream of high-profile advocates. Former presidential nominee Mitt Romney was scheduled Monday to campaign for Roberts, as Sen. John McCain and others have done.
"He is a reasonable man who understands how to solve problems for Kansans, often working on solutions out of the limelight or behind the scenes to deliver results," Graves wrote in a letter endorsing Roberts.
Orman, 45, a wealthy Olathe businessman, is running as a centrist problem-solver beholden to neither party. He's been backed by moderate Republican state legislators, and his campaign played down the Graves endorsement.
"The ceaseless political endorsements reinforce that Roberts is the insider and Orman is the outsider," Orman adviser Dave Beattie said.
Roberts looked vulnerable after the Aug. 5 primary campaign during which Wolf portrayed the 78-year-old senator as a creature of Washington, not Kansas. Since then he's overhauled his campaign, at the behest of national GOP leaders, and has been traveling the state.
From Thursday through the weekend, Roberts is scheduled to make seven stops in western Kansas, where a substantial turnout in his favor will be needed to overcome the edge Orman is expected to have in Kansas' urban and suburban counties.
Hanna reported from Topeka, Kansas. Follow Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna
Follow Beaumont on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Tom_Beaumont