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Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, during a visit to The Colorado Sun newsroom in Denver on Jan. 11, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Thursday announced his bid for president in 2020, saying his two priorities are improving economic mobility and restoring trust in government

His entry into the race extends the field for the Democratic nomination to more than 20 candidates and makes him the second Colorado politician, joining former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Bennet made his debut on CBS “This Morning” and released a nearly 4-minute-long campaign video in which he says bluntly “you may not know me.”

“I didn’t set out to be a politician. My last job was superintendent of Denver public schools,” he says in the video. “And I didn’t go to Washington to get attention, I went to pay attention.”

Ahead of the announcement, Bennet honed his message on numerous trips to Iowa and New Hampshire where he talked to voters and made the case that beating President Donald Trump is not enough.

“I think I have a contribution to make to this race,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview. “I think I have the chance to win. I don’t think that’s obvious to a lot of people today. But when you look at the way these campaigns have gone over these years, we seldom predict at the beginning who’s there standing at the end.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet talks to a civics class on April 10, 2019, at Nashua High School South in New Hampshire during a campaign trip. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Bennet starts his campaign behind the pack

The 54-year-old telegraphed his bid for months, but delayed the announcement after discovering in March that he had prostate cancer. The diagnosis only reaffirmed his interest in a White House bid, and he traveled to early presidential voting states, where he emphasized the importance of health care access, just days before he underwent a successful operation in April.

The first challenge facing Bennet, who considers himself a pragmatist politician, is distinguishing himself from the crowded field and making the Democratic debate stage at the end of June by qualifying through polling or fundraising.

“For the most part, the field is a bit to his left,” said Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “Being a centrist I don’t think disqualifies him — and ideologically, he’s probably not far from Joe Biden, who is doing well in the polls.”

Whether there’s room for another voice in the middle remains a question. Masket, who is tracking the Democratic primary for a forthcoming book, said the race remains in flux but Bennet is a long shot.

“The area of hope that he has is that not a lot of party activists have committed to candidates yet,” Masket said. But at the same time, “no one is clamoring for another candidate. The impression is they have plenty of good material from which to choose, even if they haven’t made that choice yet.”

Bennet enters as an unknown to most voters, and he acknowledges that he’s starting from the back of the pack.

“Our field is huge. It’s hard to know how you differentiate anybody at this point,” Bennet told The Colorado Sun while he campaigned in New Hampshire in April. “So for me, it’s really about putting one foot in front of the other trying to get in front of as many people as I can to preach this message to.”

To close the gap, Bennet can tap into a national donor network he cultivated in 2014, when he was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He also can emphasize his robust resume.

Bennet was as a lawyer and special assistant to the U.S. attorney in Connecticut before moving to Denver where he worked as a managing director at the investment company run by Phil Anschutz, the wealthiest man in Colorado and a prominent conservative. He then worked as chief of staff to then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper before becoming the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to the U.S. Senate in 2009 to fill the seat held by Ken Salazar, who joined President Barack Obama’s cabinet. Bennet won a tough Democratic primary and general election in 2010, but cruised to victory in 2016, when Republicans nominated a weak challenger.

Bennet’s father held top positions in the State Department under two Democratic presidents and served as president of National Public Radio. His mother and her parents survived the Holocaust in Poland and eventually came to America.

Bennet offers contrast to Bernie Sanders on health care

In Washington, he is known for working across the aisle as a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that crafted an immigration deal in 2013 that won bipartisan approval in the Senate but failed to come to a vote in the House. And in 2018 he introduced a public option health care bill he called Medicare X as an alternative to a “Medicare for all” system.

The health care plan is what Bennet often talks about on the campaign trail, offering it as a contrast to what rival Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, is proposing with a government-run plan that would force people from employer-run plans.

“Can you imagine if our position as a party was ‘If you like your insurance, we’re going to take it away from you,’” Bennet told voters at a recent campaign stop.

Other issues he plans to put at the center of his campaign include a package of legislation to reduce the influence of money and lobbyists in Washington, improving stagnant wages and addressing climate change.

In his announcement video, he points to the $10 trillion spent “on tax cuts for the wealthy and wars in the Middle East” and asks: “What would our country look like today if we spent that money investing in our own future?”

And he positions himself as a straight talker, saying he won’t claim simple solutions will fix the current problems in the political system.

“You can’t fix a broken Washington if you don’t level with the American people,” he says.

The approach is one that played well in his most recent trip to Concord, New Hampshire, where state Sen. Dan Feltes pointed to Bennet’s record in Congress.

“We need people running for president like Sen. Bennet who, in my view, fills that description as a statesman,” Feltes said at the event. “Someone who is willing to elevate problems and problem solving and people above the morass of politics.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.