In some ways, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and sitting U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet lucked out in making the big stage in the Democratic presidential primary’s opening act Thursday night. They had the chance to prove they belonged.
They both proved to be gamers, with the usually mild-mannered Bennet delivering rhetorical flourish at frontrunners Joe Biden and liberal favorite Bernie Sanders.
The candidates gave a preview of the political theater to come: decriminalized borders, universal health care, a clampdown on climate change and who was paying attention in eighth-grade Spanish class.
Elizabeth Warren was the main attraction on the opening night Wednesday. The Coloradans on Thursday night joined the other four highest pollers besides Warren -- Biden, Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
For everyone else, it was like having a role in “Cats” as a ball of yarn.
Bennet went right after Sanders, but in the nicest possible way.
“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge is we’re facing as a country,” Bennet said, referring to income inequality.
But he believed fixing Obamacare was a faster route to universal health care than forcing people to give up their private insurance.
“And I thought the vice president was very moving about this and Mayor Pete as well,” Bennet said, then said later he agreed with Kirsten Gillebrand at his left, “and I share a lot of her views.”
But Biden didn’t take it well after Bennet listed off things he saw as setbacks for progressives and name-checked the former vice president. He pushed back with the deals he was able to cut with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Bennet got loud and enthusiastic with his index finger. He called it a complete victory for the Tea Party to extend President Bush’s tax cuts “and put in place the mindless cuts we’re still dealing with today.” Biden hung his head and nodded.
Hickenlooper was studious and talked about his greatest hits in Colorado. He lost a bit of his schtick, however, the night before when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minneapolis lawyer, delivered a line tailor-made for the folksy former brewer from LoDo, when she said of Trump, “That’s what we call at home all foam and no beer.”
Warren, the Massachusetts senator who loves free college and Medicare for All, squandered the opportunity. She told us nothing new or exciting about her, but she also came out unscatched by her competitors. That helped her and hurt her at the same time. Her attempts to out-Bernie her most liberal competitor soon will be tested and debased -- if not in the primary, then eventually at the end of Donald Trump’s acidic flair. We have no idea how she fights when it will count the most.
Democrats learned a hard lesson when Hillary Clinton proved to be an underwhelming campaigner, when she couldn’t put Trump away in the debates. Yet, a flash poll of some of the party’s most liberal members gave Warren the first-night win.
An oddity of the first night was the use of Spanish for an audience that included Telemundo viewers in a vital swing state where a quarter of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2010 census. Not so much on the Night 2.
I checked with people who know Bennet and Hickenlooper well on Thursday afternoon. Both men could probably order what they intended off the menu at Hacienda Colorado.
But if appealing to Hispanic voters moves the needle in the Democratic primary, give Bennet and Hickenlooper at least a marginal advantage. They’ve campaigned in a state where 21% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, which is eighth in the nation, and 11.3% speak Spanish at home as a primary language, which is 11th among states.
The two Coloradans, however, stood together and in isolation as the eight others raised their hands when asked if they would favor decriminalizing border crossing and making violations a civil offense. Neither got the chance to say why his hand was down.
On immigration, Hickenlooper referred to a picture that emerged in the news this week of a father and daughter who died trying to cross the border into the U.S.
“If you’d ever told me anytime in my life that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents, put them in cages, actually put them up for adoption -- in Colorado we call that kidnapping -- I would have told you it’s unbelievable,” Hickenlooper said.
Bennet was more passionate.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom, because I think she sees herself, because she was separated from her parents for years because of the Holocaust in Poland.”
He talked about the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill he helped pass out of the Senate in 2013 “that had sophisticated 21st century border security, not a medieval wall.”
Motioning his index finger downward, Bennet said Trump had turned the southern border into “a symbol of nativist hostility that the whole world is looking at.”