Hickenlooper presidential buzz building slowly

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DENVER — There atop the web page of Politico, a widely read and influential site among the nation’s political class, was a lead story Thursday morning about “Democratic hopefuls”, contenders for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, who stand to benefit from the current debate about guns.

And there, included in the artwork accompanying that story, is a photo of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, right there next to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who both wear their presidential ambitions on their sleeves.

In the piece itself, Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns note Hickenlooper’s outspoken support for universal background checks and a larger conversation about guns, a stance that will hold some appeal to Democratic primary voters nationwide.

Hickenlooper, when asked the 2016 question, has always dismissed the rumor that he might seek the Democratic presidential nomination; and, last week in his State of the State address, he playfully acknowledged that he’s confident about and focused on reelection, noting that he considers the mid-way point of his first term “the quarter point” of his administration.

But make no mistake: Hickenlooper is increasingly well-positioned for a presidential run in 2016 or, perhaps more realistically, in 2020.

In this month’s issue of 5280 magazine, Hickenlooper’s chief strategist, Alan Salazar, became the first member of the governor’s inner circle to openly express excitement about the prospect of a future presidential run.

The magazine’s editor at large, Maximillian Potter, asked, “Will we ever see a President Hickenlooper?”

Salazar’s stunningly candid response: “I hope so.”

Potter told me Thursday not to read too much into Salazar’s statement — “what else would he say?” he quipped — although a savvy political operative like Salazar could have easily chosen to bat away the idea, as his boss has always done, and did not. And Potter himself conceded that Hickenlooper might be the right kind of candidate for the country in a few years.

“I think the time and climate is perfect for him or someone like him to advance,” Potter said. “He’s not a career politician, he’s not another one of these lawyers, he’s not someone who’s groomed himself or been groomed to be some sort of flawless political caricature. He’s about as close to a normal human being as we’ve seen on a national stage in a while.”

A “slow roll-out”

There’s actually ample evidence that Team Hickenlooper is, far from ruling anything out, quietly positioning itself for a shot on the national stage, should that opportunity present itself.

Last fall, when Hickenlooper was awarded a six-minute prime time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention, a large contingent of the governor’s inner circle — top advisers, political allies and campaign fundraisers — descended on Charlotte to help prepare for the speech and to manage the governor’s interactions with the national media.

“It’s a slow roll-out,” one of Hickenlooper’s political advisers told me after the speech.

During his first two years in office, Hickenlooper has sought to maintain his pro-business brand; and no out-of-state business relocating to Colorado is announced without a press conference at the Capitol.

And he has portrayed himself as a consensus-builder, focusing attention on his ability to help a bipartisan legislature foster budget compromises that an overwhelming majority of lawmakers were able to support.

Last May, at the end of the legislative session, after Republican leaders fumbled badly on handling the issue of civil unions, Hickenlooper recovered the ball and ran with it, calling a special session that forced the GOP to double-down on its procedural blunder while exciting the Democratic base across the state and helping his party re-take control of the state House.

With a quiet initiative called “TBD Colorado”, Hickenlooper has smartly gotten political and civic leaders from across the state to spend months brainstorming about long-term policy initiatives for the state. When the governor decides to finally pursue constitutional reform, which seems inevitable in a second term, it’ll seem like an organic, grass-roots effort; and the governor already has the Democratic majorities he’ll need to pass it.

Among governors facing reelection in 2014, Hickenlooper might be the safest, with an approval rating of 54 percent.

And while the former geologist’s support for fracking and the oil and gas industry generally has rankled environmentalists, it’s also helping Hickenlooper burnish his image as a maverick, someone who’s willing to go against the partisan grain from time to time.

Gun control issue will be challenging

The gun control debate inside the Capitol this year and the shift to Democratic control of both legislative chambers present Hickenlooper with new opportunities and challenges.

Unlike Cuomo, who presides over a safe “blue” state and has already signed a tough new statewide assault weapons ban into law this month, Hickenloooper, a political moderate in line with a centrist state, will tread carefully and deliberately across this political minefield.

Last week in his State of the State address, Hickenlooper expressed support for a general conversation about gun control measures but only got behind one piece of legislation, a relatively uncontroversial proposal to close a loophole that enables those buying guns on the private market to avoid background checks.

But to Potter, who spent 11 months following Hickenlooper’s every move for an exhaustive exploration of the governor that was published in 5280 last year, another line from the speech stood out — when Hickenlooper called on lawmakers to “examine our laws and make the changes needed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

“To me, that was quintessential John,” said Potter, who refers to the governor using his first name. “When I was with him for that year, I saw that he did proceed cautiously, but I don’t believe it was based on putting his political career above any issue.

“He knows in his mind what he wants to see happen; and rather than run into a buzz saw and throw red meat to one political constituency, he’s trying to find that phrase, that alignment of political self-interests, that he thinks will ultimately achieve the right thing.”

Hickenlooper, while encouraging a conversation about gun laws, is also pushing a number of proposals to improve the state’s mental health services.

“For Hickenlooper, these debates aren’t seen as sprints, but marathons,” Potter said. “I think it’s pretty astute.”

Shrewdness and happenstance

That characterization also fits Hickenlooper’s slow introduction to the rest of the country and a rising national profile.

Potter, who knows the governor better than any other reporter in the state, doesn’t believe he’ll run in 2016 or beyond, unless a confluence of circumstances align to create an unexpected opportunity — which is basically the story of how Hickenlooper entered politics in the first place.

“His career has been a confluence of shrewdness and Forrest Gump happenstance,” Potter said.

As for the shrewdness, I asked Potter if Hickenlooper’s political instincts could be compared to those of hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, who, it’s been said, always skated not to the puck but to where he knew the puck was going.

Potter took the metaphor in a different direction.

“He’s kind of like that hockey player who skates out onto the ice and his equipment is all askew and he seems a bit unsteady,” Potter responded. “But then he always goes and scores the goal and wins the game.”

Hickenlooper’s quirkiness was on display last week, when he muttered “Oh Jesus” into the microphone after flubbing a closing line during his State of the State speech.

But the state and the country have also seen his ability to lead over the last several months, when devastating wildfires and then the Aurora theater shooting thrust Hickenlooper onto the national stage; and Colorado’s passage of Amendment 64 in November has raised and will continue to raise his national profile.

Odds of a presidential run?

So what’s the likelihood of a Hickenlooper run in 2016 or beyond?

Hickenlooper himself has always responded to that question by insisting that he’s focused on leading Colorado through 2018, the end of a probable second term.

And Potter truly believes that’s not an evasive politician trying to say the right thing until the time is right to say something else.

“John believes there’s no point in considering the presidency if you can’t prove you’re capable of running the state. He’s very much focused on running the state,” Potter said. “For John, it’s about leading the state, and having the people behind him. And that’s not some Aaron Sorkin nonsense. That’s real.”

In the entire eleven months Potter spent as a fly on the wall in Hickenlooper’s office, he heard but one mention of the presidency. It came, he told me, about a year ago, as the governor and his staff were preparing for his second State of the State address.

“There was one moment when he was practicing the speech that was damn good, and the hair on the back of everyone’s neck stood up,” Potter said. “And when he finished the room was dead still. He said, ‘what do you think?” And Roxann [White] said, ‘that sounded presidential.’

“And that was the only time I heard it come up. And it did; it sounded presidential.

“It was just him.”

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