As Hickenlooper, Bennet Prepare For Big Debate, We Asked Coloradans What They Think

Jun 24, 2019

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper is condemning socialism and making headlines for picking a fight on the issue with Bernie Sanders.

Sen. Michael Bennet is touting his plan to "clean up corruption and restore our democracy."

But both of Colorado's presidential candidates are still polling below 1% in some national polls ahead of Thursday's big Democratic primary debate in Miami.

Credit U.S. Senate

They've also been relegated to the far corners of the debate stage, sandwiched between other candidates who aren't getting as much traction as Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden.

As Hickenlooper and Bennet continue their quest to stand out and woo voters at coffee shops in New Hampshire and Iowa, Rocky Mountain Community Radio asked Coloradans what they thought of their campaigns so far.

Some voters have blunt assessments.

"Neither one of them should be running," Michael Hazard told KRCC in Colorado Springs. "They should be concentrating on other things."

Hazard added he respects Hickenlooper's handling of marijuana legalization in Colorado, but he doesn't think either of his home state candidates have a shot at prevailing in the field of 24 Democratic candidates.

"They're taking time and breath away from other people," he said.

Unaffiliated voter Scott Miller is more sympathetic.

"Either one of them would make a good president," he said as he left a grocery store further south in Walsenburg. "So good luck to them both."

But in another sign that could be troubling for the candidates, at least three shoppers who left the Safeway store in the same hour didn't realize they were even running for president.

Over on the Western Slope in the city of Carbondale, some residents have very pointed opinions about Hickenlooper and Bennet.

"I suppose I should be proud a couple of Coloradans have entered the national fray for president, but frankly I find both of them unacceptable," Fred Malo told local station KDNK. "To me, the number one issue is climate change. Neither one of them has taken the oath to not take fossil fuel money in campaign contributions. Neither one of them have endorsed the Green New Deal."

And there are some residents who think it's far too early to be paying attention to the 2020 campaign.

"I really don't know much about them at all," Sharon Carden said of Bennet and Hickenlooper back down in Walsenburg. "There's just so many people running, I don't want to get lost in the crowd. But I will be paying attention just a little bit later."

Meanwhile, Denver-based political analyst Seth Masket said Hickenlooper and Bennet have yet to catch fire nationally. But Masket thinks it's too early to count them out.

"Even though I'd say the odds are long against someone with 1% support emerging as the front runner, it's not really crazy for such a candidate to stay in the race given how unsettled this race is and how much still has to happen," Masket said.

Of the two candidates, Masket thinks Bennet is running a "higher-caliber" campaign.

"He hasn't made any notable errors," Masket said. "He has given some very powerful interviews. People who I've spoken to seem fairly favorably disposed toward Bennet when they've met him or watched him or read about him."

But Masket thinks Hickenlooper did find a way to stand out in the race when he condemned socialism and got booed by Democratic activists at an event in San Francisco.

"That didn't do much to win over people in the room, but my impression was that wasn't the point," Masket said. "He managed to get some headlines, and the perception was standing up to the extremism in his own party, and that did win him some attention."

Masket said Thursday's debate will give the Colorado candidates a big chance to stand out.

"To do that with so many people on the stage, you really have to do what you can to draw attention to yourself," he said. "That's one of the areas where you saw Donald Trump's strengths back in 2015. It was obviously a very crowded debate stage. He was very good at saying bombastic things that made him the center of attention."

Masket doesn't see Hickenlooper or Bennet adopting Trump's "bombastic" debate style. But he does see a benefit in criticizing the front runners. The debate begins at 7 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday.

KRCC's Allison Budner and KDNK's Raleigh Burleigh provided reporting and audio for this story.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.