Friday night's brisk face-off between Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper featured two Colorado politicians at the top of their game at a crucial moment before the highest of high-stakes elections — and neither one faltered.
While the two candidates have met on stage twice already in the last week — in Pueblo for a debate watched online by a few thousand people and in Denver for a debate later broadcast entirely in Spanish — the 90-minute televised debate fell on the same day election officials began sending out mail ballots to state voters, just 25 days before votes will be counted.
In a twist in a political year marked by its rancor and punctuated by a chaotic presidential debate, Gardner and Hickenlooper mostly stuck to the rules, debating their records and their visions, over a steady drumbeat of attacks, with the handful of interruptions from a moderator who refused to take any guff.
Gardner, 46 and considered the most vulnerable GOP senator on the ballot this year, is seeking a second term in a state that has taken a pronounced turn to the left in the six years since he unseated a Democratic incumbent by a whisker.
Hickenlooper, the quirky 68-year-old, former two-term governor who launched Colorado's brewpub industry before venturing into politics in late middle age, jumped into the race last year after a failed presidential run and has maintained a steady, if less than commanding lead ever since.
Here are some standout moments and key takeaways from Friday's debate, which was sponsored by Denver 7, The Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio:
The debate was moderated by Denver7 anchor Anne Trujillo, The Post's Justin Wingerter and and CPR's Caitlyn Kim, who kept the proceedings moving through a broad array of questions that touched on most of the topics that have figured in the lengthy campaign.
Trujillo laid down the law early and stuck to it, shutting down a few attempts by Gardner to steer the debate back to questions he insisted Hickenlooper hadn't answered and a brief filibuster when the senator tried to give a rebuttal as the TV station broke for a commercial.
The moderators asked smart questions, including a few strategically placed rounds of yes-or-no queries that mostly elicited one-word answers from notoriously loquacious candidates and managed to produce some new information on their positions, a rare feat in a campaign so close to the finish line.
The debate didn't wind up with an unexpected element like the fly that became a sensation Tuesday after perching for two solid minutes on Vice President Mike Pence's snowy head of hair during the vice presidential debate, but the timekeeper's alarm clock drew praise and some speculation. Was it an egg timer or a bedside alarm clock? Either way, it did the job.
Gardner really wants an answer on court-packing
In one of the few instances when he managed to take control of the floor and press his opponent on a question, Gardner "yielded" his time back to Hickenlooper and demanded an answer on what has become a flash-point in the waning weeks of the campaign: whether the Democrats plan to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's only a question because the Democrats are crying foul over GOP plans to seat a conservative replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal icon who died three weeks ago, seemingly reversing a position Republicans — including Gardner — took four years ago when they refused to consider President Barack Obama's nominee nine months before the election.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, have both avoided saying whether they support court-packing, as it's known, with Biden recently saying he'll deliver his answer the day after the election.
Hickenlooper has likewise refused to be pinned down, though on Friday he came closer to delivering an answer by suggesting that the premise is flawed.
“Once we get new people into Washington, I think the system will right itself," Hickenlooper said. "That will change the institution, more than immediately changing the rules would."
As Gardner pressed him for a "yes" or "no," Hickenlooper repeatedly said he had answered the question.
Before the debate, Republican strategists said getting Hickenlooper to commit to court-packing could be the silver bullet that emerged from the evening, though the exchanges mostly yielded some lively footage of Gardner calling for an answer.
Hickenlooper really wants to talk about health care
Gardner went on the attack early, repeatedly saying, "John is convinced that this race is about him," and bringing up a finding by the state's ethics commission that Hickenlooper twice violated a state gift ban when he was governor.
"Cory can talk really fast," the more laconic Hickenlooper said, drawing "John Hickenlooper thinks it's all about him" in response.
But while he got in familiar boasts about his record as governor — bringing the state's economy back from the brink of the last Great Recession, introducing a widely lauded apprenticeship program and supervising a long-acting conceptive program that sharply cut teen pregnancies and abortions — Hickenlooper mostly wanted to hammer Gardner on his health care record.
Twice, Hickenlooper managed to utter the phrase "horse excrement," describing a brief bill Gardner introduced earlier this summer that he claims will protect people with preexisting conditions.
Asked whether they would vote for the "Medicare for All" proposal, both answered that they wouldn't, and Gardner provided a vivid image to explain his opposition. "It's like getting a colonoscopy at the DMV," he said.
Hickenlooper, who was booed by Democrats on the campaign trail last year when he called on the party to pull back from the "Medicare for All" proposal or risk losing moderate voters, emphasized his support for a public option.
He also said he wants to fix the Affordable Care Act, while Gardner has voted to repeal it numerous times and supports a lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court to overturn the law, known as Obamacare.
Both candidates, however, said — without much elaboration — that they would support lowering the age of eligibility for Medicare.
Gardner's relationship with Trump is ... complicated
If Gardner left no doubt he thinks his opponent believes it's all about Hickenlooper, Hickenlooper made clear it's all about Trump.
At several points during the debate, Gardner avoided being cornered on questions about Trump, including when he was asked why he switched from calling on Trump to withdraw from the race in early October 2016 to endorsing the president's re-election bid and running as a firm ally of the president this year.
Gardner pulled his endorsement four years ago following the release of a tape featuring Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, later saying he wrote in Pence's name rather than vote for Trump. But on Friday, he said he didn't support Trump because he thought he would lose to Hillary Clinton.
This year, Gardner said, "I'm not going to support a socialist," referring to Biden, a centrist Democrat who likes to point out that he defeated a democratic socialist — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — to win the nomination.
Asked whether he was proud to support Trump, Gardner talked about his accomplishments in office, including legislation he's had a hand in or supported — moving the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, passing the 2017 tax bill and sponsoring a public lands bill hailed as a landmark conservation achievement.
“I'm proud of the work we've done together,” Gardner said.
The candidates agree on a lot
It's almost felt like a throwback to an earlier, more convivial time in politics, before the country was as polarized as it's seemed lately, but through most of the questions in the lightning rounds, Gardner and Hickenlooper agreed on more than they disagreed.
Both candidates agreed: Trump should release his taxes, climate change is real and it's primarily caused by human activity, gay marriage is the "settled law of the land," and all undocumented immigrants — not just Dreamers — should have a pathway to citizenship.
Both said they support legalizing marijuana at the federal level and imposing term limits on senators. They both said they have faith in Colorado's all-mail ballot system.
Both condemned the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and both said, in no uncertain terms, that they condemn white supremacists and associated groups.
So much accord helped highlight the few times they disagreed on the rapid-fire questions, like when Gardner said he supports Proposition 115, a ballot measure that would ban abortions past 22 weeks' gestation in all cases except to save the life of the mother, and Hickenlooper said he opposes it.
Another time, Gardner wouldn't say whether Trump's embattled former Bureau of Land Management boss William Perry Pendley should remain in a leadership role at the agency after a judge's ruling last week that his tenure as director had been illegal.
"He hasn't been confirmed," Gardner said, drawing a restatement of the question from Trujillo, whether Pendley "should" be in the role he still effectively occupies.
"The courts have said he's not," Gardner attempted, before Trujillo turned to Hickenlooper.
The Democrat answered more directly: "No, of course not, he's making decisions he shouldn't be making."
Hickenlooper acknowledges why he went negative
After building a reputation as a politician who refused to run a negative ad — with a famous 2010 ad saying political attacks made him want to take a shower with his clothes on and an argument about how mudslinging diminishes politics as an endeavor — Hickenlooper has taken off the gloves and launched some attacks of his own against Gardner in recent months.
Until Friday night, he'd been insisting he hadn't wavered from his decade-old maxim, but after Gardner accused Hickenlooper of running the most negative campaign of his life and the moderator asked him to grade whether he'd run a positive campaign, the Democrat offered an explanation.
"I really thought I would get through this campaign without doing any negative ads, or any contrast ads, but once it got to $20 million in attack ads, so much lies, distortions and exaggerations, I figured I'd point out he has tried nine times to eliminate protections for preexisting conditions, voted to put a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA, roll back protection for clean air and clean water," Hickenlooper said.
"The bottom line is, I got so many lies thrown at me this election, I thought it was about time to tell the truth about Cory."
For the record, Hickenlooper reluctantly gave himself a "B" for his campaign style, but Gardner said he would let the people of Colorado decide what grade he deserved.
The curtain goes up on Gardner and Hickenlooper's final match-up at 6 p.m. Tuesday, when they meet in Fort Collins for a televised debate sponsored by 9News, Colorado Politics, the Fort Collins Coloradoan and several smaller TV stations across the state.