Election 2020 John Hickenlooper

Then-Democratic president candidate John Hickenlooper walks on stage before speaking at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

If you buy the hottest political hype in Colorado at the moment, you’re sizing up the matchup for U.S. Senate between former Gov. John Hickenlooper and incumbent U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a political schoolyard fight I’ve been waiting on for years.

Hick and Cory are like the two most popular kids in Colorado politics among their respective cliques. It seems inevitable for us to see them slugging it out verbally -- with potentially no less than the fate of the nation in the balance.

Not to oversell it, but Democrats have to take Colorado's seat as a path to power in the U.S. Senate. The Washington agenda can flip, if Democrats can take out Gardner. But Democrats first have to pick a candidate who can win.

I asked Gardner what he thought about lining up against the former governor after an event in Greenwood Village with former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley on Aug. 19. He laughed and said he'd be glad to face any of the Democrats and their socialist ideas.

The question is whether Hick wants it? He's suggested over and over than the Senate wasn't really his bag, so he would be forced to defend whether running for Senate is a consolation prize.

He’s accustomed to being the best-liked Democrat in the room — from Durango to Sterling, anyway. In a field of two dozen presidential hopefuls in Iowa, Hickenlooper was like the pattern in the drapes, appealing only if you bothered to pay attention.

It was more than two years ago when I told my former Denver Post colleague Chris Frates on his SiriusXM radio show that I see Hickenlooper taking on Gardner as more feasible than a White House bid.

And it was in an interview with Frates on the same POTUS channel show that Hickenlooper let slip his interest in the Senate race on Aug. 10.

"Hickenlooper didn't have the national profile he needed for a presidential run," Frates, a former CNN political and investigative reporter, told me after his Hickenlooper interview. "But what he lacks nationally, he's got in spades in Colorado: he's popular, well-known and can raise money. That would make him the front runner should he jump in. It's not the job he wanted, but it's the job he can get."

Hickenlooper's ill-fated run looked worse than it was, but it looked truly awful. Rounded off, Hickenlooper was polling at 0%, which makes it sound like not even his dog, best friend and campaign manager were behind him.

It’s hard to come back from that and the hit trail to Swink and Dinosaur with a fire in your belly when you've seen the bright lights of Dubuque.

The Senate race already is crowded with quality Democrats who fall just a tier or two under the former governor in terms of name recognition and fundraising capability. He’s the tried-and-true political brand, if Hickenlooper gets in the race, but there’s fresh energy there, as well.

“If he’s going to switch gears and run for the senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters,” said state Sen. Angela Williams, a Democrat from Denver with some of that fresh energy in the race. “This won’t be a coronation.”

Hickenlooper also got a tough homecoming from  a local media personality, my friend Dan Caplis, on his afternoon radio show on Denver's 630 KHOW on Aug. 7. It wound up showing a side of the normally affable and confident Hickenlooper that voters in Colorado haven’t seen — not necessarily wrong, but combative and frustrated.

How Hickenlooper comes down on the issue doesn’t change his standing with Republicans and most independents, but in a primary it’ll be how he stacks up with other Democrats.

Caplis tried repeatedly to get the governor say if an abortion should be allowed during all nine months of pregnancy. Hickenlooper repeatedly answered that that’s a decision for a doctor and a woman to make, not “a lawmaker or a sheriff.”

About five minutes in, the governor said he was brought on the show to talk about gun violence in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. Caplis said his people had an agreement with Hickenlooper’s people to talk about anything, then he accused Hickenlooper of refusing to answer the question and the two friendly men bickered.

Yet Gardner has his own snake pits along the campaign train to worry about.

Democratic operatives are selling the idea he doesn’t hold public events, though he does. Gardner, like almost every Democratic frontrunner, doesn't publicize his appearances, which would give paid organizers the chance to stage protests there for the media. Why provide a stage for your opponents’ political theater?

Gardner also has to shake Donald Trump off his back. Sure, he’s made some remarks and stood up to the president here and there, but Gardner is still a good Republican in Trump’s GOP. In Colorado, that won't play well.

And perhaps even more prominently, if Gardner finds himself in a race with Hickenlooper, is he up to the task of outshining a former barkeep who plucks a banjo and showers with his clothes on in campaign ads?

If you don’t think entertainment sells, remember who’s in the White House and how he got there.

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