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Romanoff-Bennet: Why not? 

Between the Lines

Several months ago, during a visit to Colorado Springs, Andrew Romanoff dropped by the Independent and talked about his state of personal limbo.

He wasn't looking for sympathy or headlines. He simply was considering what step to take next, so he could set aside the bitterness that had consumed him since the day, just after Christmas, when he learned Gov. Bill Ritter had chosen Michael Bennet, the 44-year-old Denver schools superintendent and former adviser to Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Some of Romanoff's supporters have urged him to challenge Ritter in 2010. Others felt he should make a run at Bennet to prove Ritter made the wrong choice. And some wanted Romanoff, who is 43, to wait for another opportunity later.

Romanoff gave no hint that day of what might happen. Last weekend, though, the Denver Post proclaimed that Romanoff had decided to face Bennet. Romanoff hasn't been reachable, and the former Colorado House Speaker has made no announcement. It could be a trial balloon, but the rumors sound convincing.

If they're true, it's a ballsy move, in part because Bennet has learned quickly in his first public office, making few enemies in his eight months on the job. But Romanoff has many more Democratic friends around Colorado's 64 counties than Bennet does. From leading the successful Referendum C campaign of 2005, then serving three years as Speaker of the House, Romanoff traveled thousands of miles to engage party leaders at every level. He listened to everyone and built countless friendships. He had no personal ulterior motives, simply pushing legislation and ballot issues to help Colorado.

After President Barack Obama picked Salazar, that Senate seat looked to be a perfect opening for Romanoff. But Ritter felt otherwise.

"I never heard a satisfactory explanation," says John Morris, El Paso County's Democratic chair until early 2009. "I still don't know why. It doesn't sit well with me at all."

Morris, along with all but one of the 64 county chairs, had endorsed Romanoff. Morris says he would take Romanoff's side now against Bennet.

"Andrew is the most talented politician I've seen in this state in my adult life," Morris says flatly. "If he ever got to Washington, with the charisma and potential he has, I believe we'd see him go far nationally. Bennet's a nice guy, but he just doesn't carry the same charisma. When Andrew walks into a room and starts talking, it's electrifying."

Democratic state Rep. Mike Merrifield, who worked alongside Romanoff in the Legislature, admits he's heard talk, but nothing definite. Merrifield, despite having much respect for Romanoff, still says, "He'd have a long row to hoe."

Bennet inherited most of Salazar's staff, made positive impressions in D.C., and began raising money ($2.6 million at last report). He also has made it a priority to develop good relationships with those same county-level party leaders.

"Sen. Bennet has really grown into the role very well," says Jason DeGroot, who replaced Morris as head of El Paso County's Democrats. "I've been pleased and proud of his voting record so far. I also heard him speak again recently, and he has grown miles in being able to communicate with an audience."

Still, DeGroot adds, "If Speaker Romanoff joins the race, it will be exciting. Romanoff is obviously a great communicator, and such a big asset to the party and the state. I really expected to see his name attached to a prominent position by this point, but he's still done a terrific job of staying active and visible."

So, will we have a compelling Democratic primary race, which could shape Colorado's political power structure for decades to come? Morris feels it could help whoever wins, despite the usual party logic of avoiding primary battles.

"This could shape up as Bennet, the Washington candidate, vs. Romanoff, the Colorado candidate," Morris says. "Andrew inspires more passion, but some say Bennet is safer. It actually might be helpful to Bennet if he did win a primary, because it might enhance his reputation and ability to campaign. But I also think Romanoff would be very difficult to beat in the general election."

So we wait for a confirmation, or not. But if it does turn out to be Bennet vs. Romanoff, it'll be fascinating to watch.

routon@csindy.com

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