Romanoff Hickenlooper IndivisibleNOCO Zoom

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper answer questions on Thursday, May 14, 2020, in an online forum sponsored by the progressive IndivisibleNOCO group, held on the Zoom conferencing platform.

For the first time since the June primary ballot was finalized, the two Democrats running for the chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner met face-to-face — or video image-to-video image — in a virtual forum Thursday night.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff took turns answering questions posed by the event's sponsor, IndivisibleNOCO, a progressive grassroots group based in Northern Colorado.

Ballots for the June 30 primary start going in the mail to Colorado voters on June 9.

Gardner, considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent senators in the country, is unopposed for the GOP nomination in his bid for a second term.

The 75-minute forum, conducted by Zoom video conference in order to comply with restrictions on public gatherings because of the pandemic, drew 800 participants, organizers said. It was moderated by Gordon McLaughlin, a deputy district attorney and the Democratic nominee for DA in Larimer and Jackson counties' 8th Judicial District.

"We want to make sure that our next senator is up to the task of representing Colorado and willing to take on issues that are important to progressive constituents," the Indivisible group said.

The online event was billed as an opportunity to hear the candidates address topics rather than confront each other in debate, though Romanoff didn't let that stop him from repeatedly bringing up criticism he routinely throws Hickenlooper's way.

As they've done since the primary began to take shape early last fall, Hickenlooper portrayed himself as a pragmatist with years of experience bringing together opposing sides to solve problems, while Romanoff pitched himself as an idealist willing to stand up to hidebound members of his own party, as well as Republicans.

Their differences came most sharply into focus discussing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, sweeping health care and climate change plans, respectively, that have been embraced by some Democrats and rejected by others, who say they're unrealistic and risk alienating crucial independent voters.

Hickenlooper began by saying he supports the sentiments behind the two proposals — achieving universal health care coverage and combating climate change — but suggested taking a more measured approach, pointing to his record on both fronts as governor.

"We need a public option to make sure we can have everybody covered and people won't be held hostage if they lose their jobs," he said, later arguing that a public option will drive down costs and lead to "an evolution, not a revolution, that will get to universal health care."

Romanoff swung back.

"I don't believe this is the time for timidity, and telling folks they have to wait for a slow evolution is heartless," he said, "not when 35,000 Americans are dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor."

Asked to discuss the Green New Deal — a legislative blueprint to transform the economy, with guaranteed housing and income for all Americans, as well as invest in clean energy and infrastructure — Romanoff said the proposal was "the heart of my campaign, and it is the profound moral test of our time."

He also said that confronting climate change can't wait: "This is an emergency, and we ought to act that way."

Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist who has come under fire for his coziness with the fossil fuel industry while governor, called climate change "an existential threat to the planet."

"We agree that climate change is one of the greatest existential threats to humanity in the history of the world," he said later, saying the country needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions "by 2050, at the latest, maybe by 2040."

More than once, Romanoff got in digs at Hickenlooper without naming his opponent, saying at one point that he wasn't "content to watch Democrats parrot the talking point of Republicans," and adding that the country needs "much more aggressive action."

A viewer submitted a question asking each candidate to describe his "Achilles heels" and how he planned to push back against Republican attacks aimed at his weak points.

"They'll attack everything," Hickenlooper said, smiling. "They're going to accuse me of being a socialist even though I started 20 businesses."

He added that he anticipates the opposition will scour his record as governor and attack every decision he made.

"You have to stand up and push back, say, 'This is nonsense, this is not true. I've got a long life behind me of integrity and achievement.' "

Romanoff said Republicans — and some Democrats — are already attacking him as a socialist and then launched into a defense of programs that have drawn the label, including public schools, Medicare and Social Security.

"If Republicans want to attack government," he said, he welcomes their attacks, adding: "We ought to defend what we're for and say what we believe."

Both heaped criticism on Gardner and the Republican incumbent's unwavering support for President Donald Trump, with Romanoff reminding viewers that Trump made clear that Gardner is a "rubber stamp" for the administration when he embraced Gardner at a Colorado Springs rally in February and praised his 100% support.

Mostly, the two candidates agreed — though the rambling Hickenlooper, founder of a brewpub empire before being elected Denver mayor, and Romanoff, who delivered familiar talking points at a rapid pace, presented markedly different styles.

At one point, Hickenlooper took several long seconds to begin answering a question about reasserting the role of Congress in Washington, fumbling for words and mentioning that he had "lost track of the questions," which were provided in advance to both candidates.

Hickenlooper's stumble drew swift attacks from Republicans.

“John Hickenlooper told Coloradans for months he wasn’t cut out to be a Senator, and it turns out he wasn’t kidding," said Kyle Kohli, the Republican National Committee spokesman for Colorado, in an email, charging Hickenlooper with "a series of Zoom gaffes," including getting cut off by the moderator a few times.

Almost a month ago, after he secured a spot in the primary at the Democrats' state assembly, Romanoff challenged Hickenlooper to seven debates before ballots are due. Both campaigns told Colorado Politics they've received a couple of preliminary invitations to televised debates in June but are still working out scheduling and other details.

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