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Sudden chaos 

Ritter's departure leaves Dems sweating, scrambling

As the first week of 2010 began, Gov. Bill Ritter gave every indication of revving up for a huge year in his political career.

On one side, he was helping state lawmakers prepare for the new legislative session, with budget troubles topping an agenda of thorny issues. Meanwhile, he was facing a fight for a second term, already trailing former Republican congressman Scott McInnis in early polls. With good organization and healthy fundraising, Ritter wasn't backing down.

At least, he didn't appear to be.

By Tuesday afternoon, it all turned 180 degrees: He canceled a campaign event, staffers stopped responding to voicemails (including one call from the Independent on another subject), rumors began hitting the Washington blogs, and sources began leaking the news that Ritter won't be running for re-election. He's withdrawing from the 2010 race, which he confirmed Wednesday morning at the state Capitol in a news conference.

"I've attempted to balance many roles in my life. I'm proud of our direction and my campaign. ... But it is my family who have sacrificed the most," the 53-year-old Ritter said. "I have not made them the priority in my life. So I'm taking out one of the roles in my life to focus on my family and the state of Colorado.

"This decision is intensely personal. ... It also allows me to focus on keeping the state budget balanced. By not running for re-election, I'll be able to make the tough decisions that have to be made."

Ritter insisted he was not affected by the prospect of a tough re-election campaign.

"I don't live and die by polls," he said. "I love a fight, and I believe this election is absolutely winnable. It doesn't come down to whether we would've won or lost."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Diana DeGette called a Wednesday meeting with Colorado's congressional Democrats and state party chair Pat Waak, to discuss what the party would do next in the governor race. Speculation was focusing on Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and rumors suggested that former Sen. Ken Salazar, now in President Obama's Cabinet as Interior secretary, was being pressured to return for a run.

Another possibility: Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, now competing with Sen. Michael Bennet for the Democratic nomination, could switch races.

Amid all that uncertainty, Democrats in the Legislature had to assess their own immediate concerns.

State Sen. John Morse, the majority leader, wonders what this will mean to Democrats who want to push job creation after the Legislature convenes Jan. 13.

"Lame ducks are different," Morse says. "Does that mean we get more or less done? I don't know. It just changes the dynamics."

State Rep. Michael Merrifield of Colorado Springs says he and two other legislators had met Monday with Ritter to talk about education policy and the state budget. Merrifield says he got no indication the governor was thinking about pulling out as he talked about his hope to have a "strong, unified front" with Democratic legislators.

At a press conference with Ritter earlier Tuesday, Merrifield says, the governor appeared "forceful and confident" as he talked about supporting creative industries.

"He was at his best," Merrifield says.

Morse, a strong Ritter supporter, says that the Democrats will have to "try to make lemonade" in the wake of the decision.

El Paso County Democratic Chair Jason DeGroot expressed surprise when he learned about the move. He'd said he'd just gotten a call from Ritter's campaign people, and had planned to meet with them next week to discuss their operations in El Paso County.

newsroom@csindy.com

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