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Gov. Ritter's sales job



Let's put the events of this past Saturday into proper perspective, going in reverse order of significance:

3. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter ventured to Colorado Springs as part of his "State of the State Tour," covering a variety of towns and cities, to reiterate the key themes of his annual speech by the same name to kick off the legislative session.

2. Ritter brought along none other than Michael Bennet, a convenient way to "introduce" Colorado's future U.S. senator to friendly yet certainly curious, if not skeptical audiences as quickly as possible.

1. Astoundingly, a crowd estimated at perhaps 400 people (my educated guess) jammed like sardines into the Carnegie Room at Penrose Library downtown, on short notice, with limited advance publicity.

Democratic organizers were hoping for 125 to 150 diehards, typical for many local political forums, to start the Ritter-Bennet Traveling Salvation Show on a positive note. But they feared the turnout might be diluted by another event several hours later at the Colorado Springs Conservatory auditorium for Chamber folks and other selected guests.

The larger library throng proved that (a) the post-election ecstasy hasn't begun to wear off yet, (b) this tempest over Ritter appointing Bennet to replace Sen. Ken Salazar is bigger than many could have imagined, and (c) Democrats in Colorado Springs must be feeling much more empowered about gathering in public places.

This visit also included an ironic twist: Ritter, in a real sense, was introducing himself to the Springs.

Sure, the governor has come here on other occasions, and he did campaign occasionally in the area before his 2006 election. But some local Democratic leaders still wonder if Ritter and others in Denver really see Colorado Springs as worth the trouble. To those leaders, it seems nobody north of Monument Hill truly realizes El Paso County had more than 200,000 non-Republican registered voters in 2008, easily enough to help swing any tight statewide election.

That crowd Saturday morning might have been a wake-up call for the governor. Ritter turned on his oratorical charm, as if he were speaking to a Denver or Boulder audience. He worked up the Barack Obama troops, telling them about the president-elect meeting with governors in December to pitch his stimulus plan, but making it clear he most wanted to hear from those who opposed his strategy, starting with Republicans Rick Perry of Texas and Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Ritter also was smart enough to localize his message, praising progress at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Community College. In fact, the biggest applause came when he talked more on education, bringing up a proposed five-year program after which students would have a high school diploma and an associate's degree (normally the result of two years at a community college).

But surely the governor had to realize this wasn't just about him.

The huge crowd (which probably will push similar events elsewhere in the future) should send a clear signal that heightened public awareness means the pressure will be on Ritter between now and the 2010 election. The momentum he amassed in his first two years could change quickly, even if Republicans turn their sights not toward him, but toward battling Bennet for that Senate seat next year.

In fact, it's safe to conclude that Ritter's future, as governor and leader of Colorado's Democrats as well as a potential Cabinet member for Obama, will depend largely on what happens with Bennet. From the cheers last Saturday, it was evident that rank-and-file Dems will give Bennet a chance. At the same time, however, many of them still don't fully comprehend why Ritter chose Bennet instead of someone else, particularly former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who had worked much more with, and supported, Ritter in recent years.

Ritter clearly felt he had to explain himself, and he tried. He'll probably come back again, now knowing he has a stronger nucleus of supporters here. But that doesn't mean that Democrats locally, or anywhere in Colorado, have blind faith in the direction or the gambles Ritter is taking.

Barack Obama, absolutely. Bill Ritter, not yet.

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