GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Gov. John Hickenlooper had been doing well until the candidate-to-candidate cross examination period arrived a little more than midway through Saturday night’s Western Slope Club 20 debates, which for decades have kicked off the election-season final stretch in Colorado.
The “cross” is the signature feature of the event. Candidates ask each other questions and follow up questions and they can interrupt each other to press for answers.
Until the cross got underway, Hickenlooper seemed unfazed by the series of jabs thrown at him by Republican Bob Beauprez, a former congressman and confident speaker who argued in the same hammering language he has used all year that the state economy is limping along, hobbled by regulations and soft leadership. But Hickenlooper countered by touting his accomplishments and rattling off statistics that underline the economic growth and employment gains the state has made on his watch over the last four years.
He started out in cross that way, too.
“We’ve cut 1,500 regulations. The state’s job growth ranking has gone from 40th to 4th. We’ve seen a 41 percent decline in unemployment. We’ve created 210,000 new jobs. My question for you,” he told Beauprez, “is: ‘Can I count on your vote?'”
Thinking Out Loud
Hickenlooper is a semi-eccentric, at least in the world of politics. He is a former brewpub owner who, despite serving a decade in political office, still tends to think out loud. It’s a mixed-blessing kind of quality in an era of canned public figures and the gotcha 24-hour news cycle.
On Saturday, under direct questioning from Beauprez, it was more bad than good. Hickenlooper descended into four minutes of quirky. To his supporters, it was familiar and anti-slick. To his detractors, it was bumbling and backpedaling.
“Why did you lie to the sheriffs and say you hadn’t spoken to Mayor Bloomberg about the gun-control bills?” Beauprez asked, referring to a videotaped discussion that made headlines earlier this summer for heightening the impression on the right that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was directing policy in Colorado.
In fact, Bloomberg and his pro-gun control groups backed the controversial suite of gun measures passed by the legislature last year. The laws spurred a conservative backlash that still resonates powerfully on the right. Hickenlooper had talked to Bloomberg but, the governor said at the debate, not before he decided to support the 15-round magazine limit that the sheriffs opposed. Bloomberg hadn’t influenced him, Hickenlooper meant to say, but it didn’t sound that way in the taped conversation, which is what spurred the headlines and Beauprez’s question.
“I talked to him after — I didn’t mean to….” Hickenlooper was thinking instead of speaking in full sentences and he was obviously frustrated. “Look, I haven’t been in politics that long,” he said, suggesting that he should have known better in the conversation with the angry sheriffs and chosen his words more carefully.
“Awww,” said a chorus of Beauprez supporters. “Oh, c’mon!” shouted another, a woman who had been providing loud and highly critical commentary of the governor from the minute the debate began.
Beauprez then asked Hickenlooper whether the reports were true that he intended, if he lost the election, to turn the controversial commuted sentence he granted last summer to death-row inmate Nathan Dunlap into a permanent reprieve.
The commuted death sentence is a topic the state Republican Party and its surrogates all year have been using to attack Hickenlooper as either a far-left figure or a wishy-washy leader.
“I haven’t changed my mind,” Hickenlooper said. Beauprez pressed him for an answer. Hickenlooper seemed to feel he had already given an answer, but he really hadn’t, or at least that’s how it sounded in the room. He looked to be dodging or unsure of himself, until at last he said, “I don’t think the government should be in the business of taking people’s lives.”
It was a good response, if not quite a direct answer, but it came too late to feel strong.
Sewing Up the Right
Beauprez landed a hard blows Saturday. But Hickenlooper is a moderate Democrat and a bridge builder, and that’s how he came off on stage. The tea party right sees him as a radical lefty for not vetoing bills that closed loopholes on universal gun-purchase background checks, that granted expanded rights for gay people and that boosted clean energy. But, repeat polling shows solid majorities of Coloradans don’t see any of that as radical. On the contrary, they mostly support those policies (e.g., here, here, here).
Beauprez’s platform rests mainly on a program to eliminate all regulations that aren’t “pro-freedom,” as he put it Saturday. The proposal drew wild applause from his supporters, but it’s hard to imagine how it would work in practice. Are restaurant hygiene codes pro-freedom? Beauprez celebrated a similar regulation-slashing program enacted in Utah by Gov. Gary Herbert. But do many of the Front Range suburban Jefferson County voters who decide statewide elections in Colorado yearn to live in Gov. Herbert’s Utah?
Hickenlooper came off as quirky and partly dithering, but that has never lost him an election in the past and, in an era where voter opinions of sound-bite-delivering partisan politicians couldn’t get any lower, it may be his persistently quirky, human qualities that voters like best.
The two men are scheduled to meet again for debates five more times before Election Day, November 4.
[ Photos: (Top) Gov. John Hickenlooper, (bottom) Congressman Bob Beauprez, both at Club 20 debate in Grand Junction, Colorado. ]