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Hickenlooper makes campaign trail debut touting compromise. His rivals in Senate race say it’s the wrong approach.

In an event designed as pep rally, Democratic rivals make the case that the status quo establishment embodied by the former governor lacks urgency on the issues

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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made his case at a forum with 10 other contenders for the Democratic primary in the U.S. Senate race at a forum on Saturday at the Durango Public Library. (Jerry McBride, Durango Herald)

DURANGO — John Hickenlooper made his campaign trail debut in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race Saturday by explaining his initial lack of interest in the job and his about-face.

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“I spent a lot of time talking about how I wasn’t cut out for Washington,” the former governor said in his introduction at a Democratic candidate forum in Durango. “But I think now more than ever we need somebody in Washington who can really bring people together and get things done.”

To his 10 rivals in the Democratic primary, Hickenlooper’s compromise approach ignores the urgency at the heart of the contest to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020. And the other candidates urged the roughly 200 people in the room to embrace bold new ideas, rather than moderation.

“The time for incremental reform has long passed,” said Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker.

“It is no time for business as usual — the status quo will literally kill people,” said Alice Madden, a former top state lawmaker, referring to climate change.

“Getting the right kind of Democrat in this seat is the No. 1 issue,” said Stephany Rose Spaulding, a college professor and former congressional candidate. “Because if we replace one of the players with a player that’s like Cory Gardner, what has that done for us?”

None of the rivals invoked Hickenlooper directly after state Democratic Party Chairwoman Morgan Carroll, the moderator for the event, forbid candidates from “shooting fire at each other.” But the subtle pushback against Hickenlooper is more evidence that the party is headed toward a messy primary for a seat that is crucial to Democrats’ chances to retake the U.S. Senate.

Hickenlooper’s campaign is off to a slow start. He acknowledged at the forum that his website isn’t even finalized and he started without key campaign jobs filled. The forum in southwestern Colorado hosted by the state Democratic Party was his first major public event since declaring his candidacy Aug. 22.

MORE: DSCC officially throws their weight behind Hickenlooper in U.S. Senate race, irking primary rivals

For months, he said he wouldn’t seek the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, but entered the fray just days after ending a presidential bid in which he failed to gain traction as a pragmatist in a field dominated by strong progressives.

His campaign is endorsed by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, much to the dismay of party activists, and his presence forced one of the leading candidates, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, to suspend his campaign earlier this week.

The 11 contenders for the Democratic primary in the U.S. Senate race in Colorado participated in a forum Saturday at the Durango Public Library. (Jerry McBride, Durango Herald)

In an interview with The Colorado Sun before the event, Hickenlooper once again explained his decision as the choice to take action rather than just criticize. “To go back and change Washington through the Senate is very different than changing it through the presidency,” he said. “It’s still many of the same skills, the ability to bring people together who disagree.”

He said his agenda in the Senate race is the same as his presidential campaign. “It’s still a change agenda,” he said.

Hickenlooper’s remarks at the event repeated much of his favorite lines from the national campaign, touting his previous work to expand health care coverage to more residents and work to negotiate a compromise deal with the oil and gas industry on tougher rules for methane emissions.

Asked his top three issues, he put climate change at the top and shared the urgency his rivals expressed on the issue, calling it a bigger threat than the fear of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. 

MORE: Why John Hickenlooper says he is running for U.S. Senate after repeatedly claiming it’s a job he doesn’t want

Romanoff gave the most specifics on where he stands on the issue, endorsing the “Green New Deal.” He supports an end to reliance on fossil fuels and a fracking ban. “I’m not content to stand by as the planet catches fire,” he said at the forum.

The dynamic that plagued Hickenlooper in the presidential primary won’t escape his U.S. Senate bid. For at least a handful of the committed Democrats who attended the forum, his reputation as a moderate is a liability.

“I’m kind of against Hickenlooper. He’s too establishment for me,” said Richard Taylor, a 76-year-old from Durango. “He was too middle of the road.”

“I don’t think he’s going to get a lot of the votes going forward. I think he’s seen as part of the problem, not the solution,” sad Patrick Callahan, a retired anesthesiologist from Durango. “Experience can hurt you sometimes.”

The rules gave the two-hour event the feel of a party pep rally rather than a forum for the field to differentiate themselves to voters. The slate of candidates is so large that there weren’t enough chairs at the front of the room and the candidates echoed each other throughout the event.

Mary Kay Stewart, a retired scientist and educator, said it’s going to be hard to pick a favorite. “They all said the right thing,” she added.

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