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Which Democratic Governor Is Ready for Primetime?

Forget O'Malley and Cuomo, could Colorado governor John Hickenlooper emerge as the Democratic presidential frontrunner in 2016?

4:59 PM, Jul 30, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The letter—released under a Freedom of Information Law request—was sent to The New York Times following the newspaper’s reporting on $2 million in donations made by gambling interests to the Committee to Save New York, a group that spent $12 million on mostly pro-Cuomo advertisements in 2011 but has refused to release the names of its donors. The Times referenced the letter in its follow-up reporting, but it had not been released in full by the Cuomo administration.

Note that the letter was released the Friday afternoon before last, the day of the Aurora shooting. Seems odd to dump bad news the day dozens of people were shot in a killing spree. 

But if O'Malley exhibited a failure to lead in the face of a disaster and Cuomo hid bad news behind a national tragedy, one Democratic governor recently faced a crisis and proved he might be capable of handling higher office. So far, only Stephanie Simon of Reuters seems to have noticed:

[Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper] remarks, at a news conference last Friday, sounded even more unfocused by comparison with the crisp report delivered minutes later by Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates.

But his halting performance on the national stage did not seem to bother the governor's constituents. On the contrary, the geeky Democrat with the funny name has earned high marks from Colorado voters precisely because he's unpolished, unscripted and slightly awkward - all of which makes him seem authentic and, especially in recent days, genuinely empathetic, political analysts say.

Hickenlooper consistently earns favorability ratings of 60 percent or higher in a state where the electorate is roughly divided in thirds among Democrats, Republicans and independents. That makes him one of the most broadly popular governors in the country; he's sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

Watching him at the news conference, wearing rumpled shirt sleeves and fumbling to find the right tone, outsiders might have said "He was not as professional as he could be," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver. "But that is pure Hickenlooper. He is in no way artificial or practiced."

Hickenlooper has been mentioned as a 2016 contender before. In addition to having high approval ratings as governor of an important swing state, it's worth noting he's demonstrated a fair degree of independence from the liberal party orthodoxy—for instance, Hickenlooper has defended oil and gas companies's use of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. "fracking", which is deeply unpopular with environmentalists.

If Hickenlooper's surprising popularity holds following his leadership role in handling Colorado's recent wildfires and the Aurora shooting, Democrats ought to start waking up to the fact he's cut from presidential timber.

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