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Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. (Photos by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The candidates in Colorado’s much-watched U.S. Senate race are poised to debate only once — and not even on television — after the two campaigns failed to reach a broader agreement.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Republican incumbent, said in June he would participate in five debates ahead of the November election. But Democrat John Hickenlooper’s campaign announced Tuesday a different roster of four proposed debates that the former governor agreed to attend.

The only debate that met with agreement from both candidates is an Oct. 2 debate in Pueblo hosted by the Pueblo Chieftain, the local newspaper.

Earlier in the day, Hickenlooper told reporters in Fort Collins that his campaign is close to an agreement on debates with Gardner’s campaign, but then. “If we haven’t got it all figured out, we’re negotiating on the last one. We’re close. I’m looking forward to it,” Hickenlooper said, according to The Denver Post.

A Hickenlooper spokesman later clarified that the candidate was referring to debate organizers and not the Gardner campaign. Jerrod Dobkin, a spokesman for Gardner’s campaign, said the Democratic rival never contacted the campaign to reach an agreement.

The potential impasse comes as the race appears to tighten. A new poll released Tuesday shows Hickenlooper leading Gardner with 48% to 42%. The poll had a 4 percentage point margin of error. 

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Earlier polls have shown Hickenlooper leading Gardner by 10 percentage points or more.

It’s not clear whether the two campaigns will work to reach a compromise and agree to more debates. Gardner’s spokesman Jerrod Dobkin would not agree to Hickenlooper’s proposal but said the campaign is open to negotiating with his campaign. The Hickenlooper campaign would not answer questions about the campaign’s debate schedule.

“After 69 days of not responding to our proposed debate schedule, John Hickenlooper lied to a reporter today and claimed his campaign was negotiating debates with our campaign,” Dobkin said. “Now that he has released a proposed schedule, it is no surprise his campaign team is trying to hide their candidate until October since John Hickenlooper has never met a rake he won’t step on. Our campaign is happy to begin debate negotiations, and the Hickenlooper campaign knows how to get ahold of us if they are actually interested in putting their candidate on a debate stage.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman said Hickenlooper looked “forward to the opportunity to show the clear contrast between John’s record of fixing tough problems by putting Colorado ahead of politics and Sen. Gardner’s failure to lead and speak out against his party.”

For now, the dueling debate schedule offers a glimpse into the political calculus of both campaigns.

Gardner agreed to three debates in September, starting Sept. 1 in Colorado Springs hosted by The Gazette and the local NBC-affiliate TV station. The other two are the Club 20 debate Sept. 19 in Grand Junction and a Sept. 29 debate in Denver aired statewide by the state’s Fox affiliates.

He also agreed to an Oct. 14 debate hosted by The Colorado Sun, CBS4 Denver and PBS12.

Hickenlooper’s campaign proposed no debates in September and none outside of the Front Range. The debates Hickenlooper said he would attend included an Oct. 6 debate hosted by The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio and Denver7, the local ABC affiliate; an Oct. 13 debate in Fort Collins hosted by 9News, The Coloradoan newspaper and six other media organizations. He also agreed to participate in a debate hosted by Telemundo on an unspecified date in October.

The Sun provides political and government coverage to the Chieftain and the Coloradoan newspapers.

Laura Chapin, a Democratic communications strategist, expects the two campaigns to reach additional agreements. “They’re some maneuvering going on,” she said. “They will come to something.”

Hickenlooper’s decision to not attend the Club 20 debate in Grand Junction is notable because the civic group’s annual meeting is usually a must-attend political event. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis was the first major political leader in recent memory to turn down the debate, and he drew criticism from business leaders on the Western Slope.

Updated 8 p.m. July 28, 2020: This story was updated with comment from John Hickenlooper’s campaign.

John Frank

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