Last summer when he was running for president, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was trying as hard as he could to get onto the debate stage.
Fast-forward a little over a year, however, and the Democrat is taking a different approach.
After abandoning his flagging White House bid to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Cory Gardner, Hickenlooper has accepted four invitations to debate Gardner — all in October — but rejected six others, including an early September debate in Grand Junction that has featured every major Colorado Senate candidate for as long as anyone can remember.
Gardner, meanwhile, has accepted seven debate invitations — including one that coincides with Hickenlooper's list — and a campaign spokesman said negotiations are under way to firm up the other three.
Hickenlooper's critics charge the former two-term governor, who's earned a reputation over the decades for uttering malapropisms dubbed "Hickenbloopers," is trying to limit podium time with Gardner, a notoriously aggressive debater — or at the very least, avoid meeting his opponent for televised debates until Coloradans have their ballots in hand.
But the Hickenlooper campaign insists it's Gardner who is ducking debates, and a spokeswoman on Tuesday renewed a call for the Republican to attend the debates Hickenlooper has already accepted.
On Tuesday, the Gardner campaign issued a joint press release with two other Senate Republicans facing tough re-election bids — Arizona's Martha McSally and North Carolina's Thom Tillis — challenging their Democratic opponents to accept invitations from CNN to spar in nationally televised debates.
“Governor Hickenlooper is the only Colorado Senate candidate to turn down debates,” Gardner said. “Hickenlooper continues to hide from voters because he cannot defend his increasingly radical agenda nor his egregious ethics violations. With so much on the line this November, voters deserve to hear from both candidates.”
A spokeswoman for the Hickenlooper campaign told Colorado Politics the campaign had already declined CNN's overture a couple weeks ago, telling the cable news station the Democrat was instead "focusing our attention [on] debates on Colorado media."
"We've accepted invitations to four debates that will allow voters across the state, including those who speak Spanish, the opportunity to see the clear contrast between John's record of problem solving and leadership and Senator Gardner's failure to stand up to President Trump while he botches our nation's response to Coronavirus. We hope Senator Gardner will stop playing political games and accept these invitations as well," said Melissa Miller, Hickenlooper's communications director, in a statement.
Partisans on both sides took to Twitter on Tuesday to accuse their opponents of engaging in stunts — the kind of tiresome debate over debates that often consumes politicos about this time in the campaign cycle.
As things stand, the two candidates have only concurred on a single debate, an Oct. 2 meeting inPueblo, sponsored by the Pueblo Chieftain. That debate takes place a week before mail ballots are set to go out, starting on Oct. 9, but organizers plan to stream it live on Facebook rather than televise it.
Left unresolved are three proposed October debates sponsored by media organizations that Hickenlooper has agreed to, including one with Spanish-language network Telemundo, and another with 9News and Colorado Politics planned to take place in Fort Collins.
Jerrod Dobkin, a Gardner campaign spokesman, told Colorado Politics the campaign is working with those debates' sponsors to find a time that works, given that the Senate is back in session next week through early October. He said Gardner wants to face off with Hickenlooper in a televised debate before voters start returning ballots.
The Hickenlooper campaign has ruled out taking part in Western Slope civic organization Club 20's debate, the traditional kick-off to the fall campaign season, as well as a debate jointly sponsored by Club 20 and two other rural advocacy organizations, Action 22 and Pro 15. The Democrat's campaign has also vetoed proposed debates sponsored by The Gazette and KOAA, KDVR Fox31. and CBS4 with The Colorado Sun.