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Purple skies at the upcoming Colorado election season 

The first clue this meeting will be different is there's no parking. Then I have to wait in line to sign in as dozens of people pour into the Warehouse Restaurant. Another clue: The layout of food includes salmon, not just chips and dip. And later, candidates speak for more than an hour, because there are so many.

Could this be an El Paso County Democratic Party event?

"Now we don't have to tell people to move to the front," former county party chair Ed Raye jokes as 200 people fill the meeting room last Thursday night.

Only 120 were expected, and the turnout surprises everyone. Local Dems have been good about showing up for "official" events, but this is just a gathering to welcome the county party's two new leaders: county chairman Hal Bidlack, who also chairs the state party's platform committee and the county campaign for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's bid for governor; and county executive director Christy Le Lait, who managed Bidlack's unsuccessful congressional campaign in 2008. She's the county party's first executive.

State Rep. Michael Merrifield quips, "No longer can you come 15 minutes late to a Democratic event and get fed."

Merrifield, hoping to become the first Democratic county commissioner in 38 years, is one of several with a real shot at winning in November. Another is Pete Lee, hoping to succeed Merrifield in the House.

Bidlack announces a new headquarters at 18 W. Rio Grande Ave., saying, "We're moving out of the cave," referring to the party's North Iowa Street cubbyhole.

Come Saturday, Democrats will gather in Broomfield for their state assembly, where candidates will be nominated for the Aug. 10 primary ballot. The headliner act is the U.S. Senate race, a duel between former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet. Both are expected to make the ballot, though Bennet is making plans to petition on if he falls short.

Meanwhile, at the Republican state assembly in Loveland, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, the darling of the Tea Party crowd, will sweep onto the ballot but face former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the primary. Norton is petitioning on, Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs says in a phone interview.

"Buck is pitching to the folks who are anti-establishment," Gardner says.

Buck recently hired El Paso County GOP Chairwoman Kay Rendleman to manage his campaign, leaving a leadership gap locally until the Central Committee votes June 5. There was no El Paso County Republican gathering leading into the state assembly.

"The big issue will be Scott McInnis versus Dan Maes [for governor]," Gardner predicts, saying he backs McInnis and hopes the same folks supporting Buck don't give Maes, who sold his credit-reporting business recently, the 30 percent he needs to get on the ballot.

There's no mystery whom the Democrats will nominate for governor. The question is, who will be Hickenlooper's running mate? That might be announced Saturday, and it might be term-limited state Rep. Buffie McFadyen of Pueblo West or someone from the Western Slope to widen Hickenlooper's appeal outside the Metro Denver area.

El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, McInnis' county campaign chair, has been mentioned as a possible McInnis running mate, but Clark said this week that she hasn't been told anything.

Despite all the jubilation last week, Democrats know they still have many voters to convince.

"We're Democrats because we're not bullies," Bidlack said. "We genuinely believe everyone counts."

zubeck@csindy.com

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