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Seeking the real Senate story 

Democrats and Republicans alike still are shaking their heads, incredulously, at Gov. Bill Ritter's appointment of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet as the state's next U.S. senator.

Yes, the Michael Bennet, well-known in Denver but unknown everywhere else.

Dems couldn't believe it because they assumed Ritter would pick one of the three most prominent candidates: Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, outgoing Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff or U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter. The consensus had been that any of that group would capably replace Sen. Ken Salazar and then retain the seat in the 2010 election.

Republicans couldn't believe it because they dreaded a 2010 campaign against one of those formidable, established Democrats, while also trying to stop Ritter from securing a second term. Instead, the GOP now relishes the prospect of a winnable 2010 race against Bennet with a strong challenger such as, perhaps, state Attorney General John Suthers.

From this perspective, the first task was determining which half of this story was more significant: Who the governor's choice was, or who it wasn't.

A logical step was to ask state Rep. Michael Merrifield, one of Colorado Springs' best-regarded Democrats and chair of the House Education Committee. Surely, he would have more info and deeper insights. But the look on Merrifield's face gave away his reaction, before he could say a word.

"I'm shocked, just like everybody else," he said. "I'm not sure why the governor picked him."

Merrifield says he's met Bennet, "and we agreed on some things and disagreed on others." Merrifield adds that he had the chance to talk personally with Ritter about the Senate vacancy.

"I told him I was supporting Romanoff, and I told him why," Merrifield recalls, detailing how Romanoff worked hard to involve both parties in legislation, and had been so diligent about traveling the state to discuss any issues. As a result, Romanoff had backers throughout Colorado.

"There's also the fact that picking Romanoff would have meant no domino effect," Merrifield says, referring to Romanoff being term-limited out of the State House. "It would have been totally clean" as opposed to selecting Hickenlooper, which would've meant a new Denver mayor, or Perlmutter, which could've left a congressional seat for the GOP to grab.

Of course, the Perlmutter logic falls flat next to the reality that picking Bennet leaves Democrats far more vulnerable now in the Senate. And that's why the much bigger story is why Ritter picked Bennet, not why the governor didn't pick someone else.

Shortly after the announcement, President-elect Barack Obama issued a statement praising Bennet, and Ritter. Obama strongly considered Bennet for education secretary, so clearly the incoming president feels Bennet can help carry the ball on education inside the Capitol.

But that just makes Bennet look more like a one-trick pony. It also makes Ritter look like an opportunist, perhaps trying to improve his standing with Obama's for a possible Cabinet post later. Obviously, Ritter has a high opinion of Bennet and expects him to become a superb lawmaker, even if he has to learn on the job, from scratch.

Motives aside, we don't know anything about Bennet, and he doesn't know anything about us. He's neither held nor run for public office. Who knows if he's even visited Colorado Springs or Pueblo, or anywhere outside of Denver other than the ski areas? And how can he learn Washington, learn the issues and learn about his 4.75 million constituents, all at the same time, all before the 2010 election?

How can he go from being a fresh-scrubbed, baby-faced neophyte to making a difference in the Senate and developing a broad base of support from Steamboat to Salida, from Lamar to Loveland? Also, by the way, Bennet wasn't a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last August. And if he was in Colorado Springs last May for the Dems' state convention, he was nowhere near the podium. Even inside his own party, he's absolutely an outsider.

To Bennet's credit, we hear he's keeping most, if not all, of Salazar's staff, and he's coming to the Springs on Saturday for a meet-and-greet.

But that's just a start. It's also a long, long way from Bennet becoming an effective senator or winning that election in 2010.

routon@csindy.com

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