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What now for Dems?

Between the Lines



Standing on the Capitol steps in the city he already rules, John Hickenlooper made the announcement Tuesday afternoon that most Colorado Democrats were expecting to hear.

Denver's mayor is coming to his party's rescue. He's running for governor, hoping to fill the void left by Gov. Bill Ritter's decision to end his campaign for a second term. And Hickenlooper's saying the right things, such as proclaiming jobs will be "my mission as Colorado's next governor."

It's encouraging for the Democrats, who knew Ritter faced a tough re-election fight against Republican Scott McInnis. But it could still be tough — if not tougher — unless Hickenlooper makes a few smart moves.

To solidify his candidacy, unify the party, and give himself a better chance around the state, Hickenlooper must name a strong running mate. In many cases, the lieutenant governor might not matter much, and in fact few cared that Barbara O'Brien was on the 2006 ticket with Ritter. But this time, filling that spot with a difference-maker looks vital.

Also, Hickenlooper must come to terms with U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff and state treasurer Cary Kennedy, either of whom could've been — and indeed still could be — formidable gubernatorial candidates themselves. Otherwise, if Hickenlooper gives the impression that he can ride his mayoral prominence to victory, he could be in for a shock. Not just in November, but in a primary.

That's because many rank-and-file Democrats and fence-straddling independents, especially away from the Front Range, can't be counted upon to automatically embrace Hickenlooper. They don't know the first thing about him, and they don't care that President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar endorsed him.

The word in Denver last weekend was that Romanoff was calling state party leaders, weighing the possibility of moving from his primary campaign against appointed U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to the governor's race. Romanoff reportedly doesn't want to back away from his Senate race, which has been gathering momentum behind the scenes. Then again, at least one rumor suggests Hickenlooper might be practically begging Romanoff to join him as lieutenant governor, leaving bigger things until later. That sounds pie-in-the-sky, but you never know.

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper is trying from the start to show he cares about the whole state. In Tuesday's announcement, he recalled his roots as a young geologist working in oil fields on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains, and his work developing restaurants in Colorado Springs (Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.) and Fort Collins, in addition to Denver. Some of those sound bites, if well-received, could turn into stump-speech themes.

So who else might be a good match for Hickenlooper's ticket? Perhaps somebody like Ken Gordon, the former state Senate president who's well-known across Colorado. Or a popular figure from outside Denver, such as former state Sen. Jim Isgar of the Durango area (now working for the Department of Agriculture), or a term-limited state lawmaker like Sen. Abel Tapia of Pueblo or Rep. Liane "Buffie" McFadyen of Pueblo West.

That would demonstrate Hickenlooper knows party leaders outside of Denver. It also would give him much-needed, close-range input from somebody familiar with the Legislature, who could help him learn more about specific issues and policy.

How does Hickenlooper replacing Ritter sit with Democrats in our midst? John Morris, the former El Paso County party chair, believes Hickenlooper "will be a strong candidate and he can win." But, he adds, not unless the Denver mayor appeals to the entire state.

"He has a huge amount of work to do in a short amount of time," Morris says. "He's gotta establish statewide credentials, because people look at him as a Denver Democrat. He has to get away from showing a Denver-centric attitude. Probably his No. 1 problem is just putting together an organizational structure in such a short time, but the donors will be there for him. He's already shown that he can raise money. And it's critical that Hickenlooper must get the support of Romanoff, but they already are friends."

That didn't happen Tuesday, but the week was still young. Regardless, you get the feeling this race for governor will become Colorado's biggest newsmaking machine of 2010.

In fact, it already is.

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