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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper faces off against former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff for a debate in the studio of Denver7 in Denver on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. The debate, held ahead of the Democratic primary, was sponsored by The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio News, Denver7 and the University of Denver’s Center on American Politics. The winner of the June 30 primary will go on to face incumbent Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner in November's general election. 

This was supposed to be easy for Gov. John Hickenlooper. 

But it's been six years since Hick was the pick for Colorado, when he won a dogfight for his second term as governor. The June 30 primary tells us whether he’s still got it, or if the run for the U.S. Senate is a repeat of his run for president. Signs say it won't be.

Hickenlooper's people say the Republicans and incumbent Cory Gardner, the man he would have a good shot at unseating in November, are behind his late-season troubles with the spotlight and messaging.

Maybe Gardner called up Hick and said, “Let’s grab a beer, and could you tell me that story about how you liked to play baseball as a kid ...” on the day he was held in contempt for not showing up for an ethics commission hearing on his free travel as governor.

Maybe it was Gardner who steered a progressive chunk of Coloradans to the left of Hickenlooper’s moderate lane. I tell ya, that guy.

More likely, Republicans are paying for ads to stir up voters over the former governor’s troubles. That's politics.

Don’t pity the Democrats, whose dark money groups have been hammering away on Gardner for months about all things Trump, picking apart and reassembling the senator's record, from his votes on Capitol Hill to his conduct in Sunday school.

Yet the question is, are there any undecided voters to be swayed?

An online independent poll by 9News and Colorado Politics last Thursday gave the better known Hickenlooper a 58% to 28% edge. If that poll holds up, then Hickenlooper was, indeed, the Mr. Inevitable he was positioned to be when he entered the race.

Many on the left, those who haven’t let go of Hick’s veneer of inevitability, came down hard on former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff for calling out Hick’s ethics verdicts in an ad on June 19.

Romanoff drew condemnation from Gov. Jared Polis and a newly formed pro-Hick group of Democrats, called Let’s Turn Colorado Blue.

The new Blue group hit back at Romanoff, so Hick wouldn’t have to and thus commit the same Democratic family offense they’re mad at Romanoff about.

While it’s always been true that Hick eschews negative campaigns, he’s never lacked for friends willing to engage in it. Politics is funny that way.

I remember the CBS4 debate between Hickenlooper and Bob Beauprez in 2014, where the two old bucks of Colorado politics tangled on the subject, as Beauprez’s campaign stung Hickenlooper in the closing days, even though there were no shortage of attack ads out there on Beauprez.

Team Beauprez had an ad out called “Hickpocrisy,” in which they flagged the incumbent governor for not calling on groups such as the Democratic Governors Association to pull down their attack ads.

“Our campaign has never run anything but a positive ad,” Hickenlooper said. “That’s everything we can control. And I denounce all the negative ads. I’m happy to do it.”

Beauprez fired back, “But you’re happy to let other people do your dirty work for you.”

I called up Bob a couple of weeks ago to get his read on the state of things, which I like to do from time to time. 

Despite doing well in the debates against Hickenlooper and running close, if not ahead, in the final months six years ago, Beauprez wondered then and now if he was fighting for undecided votes that didn’t exist. Romanoff must wonder the same.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to give the race to Hickenlooper, Bob told me.

“He’s got the name, he’s got the money, and Andrew has been out of office for a longer while,” Bob said. “I know what this is like: He’s run a few races and not come out on top, so he’s got that factor to deal with.”

Running to the left of Hickenlooper was the formerly moderate Romanoff’s only choice, one that could win if it was executed the right way. Romanoff has tried, but it's yet to be shown that he's made the case stick. This primary, however, could be less about who Romanoff is and more about who he is not, as in not the more moderate of the two.

If Democrats nominate Hickenlooper, they have to accept that he doesn't back the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Romanoff does. Hickenlooper was a reluctant partner on legalized pot, and that too could be a turnoff to millennial voters.

“If Colorado Democrats are as enamored with Bernie Sanders as they seem, then maybe Democratic primary voters have drifted that far to the left, and that’s not where John Hickenlooper has positioned himself,” Beauprez said. “If they don’t find Hickenlooper’s straddling the moderate fence appealing, maybe Andrew surprises.”

Beauprez excelled in the debates against Hickenlooper, which perhaps supports the presumption Hickenlooper was reluctant to go head-to-head with his primary competitors, until meeting Romanoff in the closing days. Mostly there were polite forums, and Hickenlooper skipped a good many.

“He flusters very easily,” Bob told me.

He was surprised Hickenlooper, if he was the assured nominee he was cast to be, didn’t use the primary to define himself as a national figure, reintroduce himself to voters and burnish his debate skills.

“Is anybody even quizzing him on where his opponents might go, what issues they’ll raise, where he should go with his answer?” Bob asked. “If they’re not, he’s not going to be ready for Cory Gardner."

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