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What Hickenlooper has to do to win

Jen Psaki

On Wednesday night, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had an opportunity to introduce himself to the American people. And for many viewers — putting aside his hard-core Colorado fans — some of his answers were too long, hard to follow and lacking the pizzazz we have seen from some of the other Democratic contenders.

Then there were some eye-roll worthy moments, including his description of taking his mother to see the X-rated movie “Deep Throat,” and out-of-touch exchanges like when he asked CNN’s Dana Bash if she’d ask the female candidates, “Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?”

But for Americans looking for a candidate who is more of a pragmatist, who has executive experience — and with a record on issues like job creation, climate change and health care, he offered a palatable alternative.

To be fair, there were also moments where he stood out. For example, he said he would suspend the death penalty if elected president because, “it’s expensive, it prolongs misery, and the worst thing, it is random. Depending on where that crime occurs and, in many cases, whether the killer is African-American or Latino, that has a lot to do with who gets tried on a death penalty charge.”

He also proudly talked about the importance of preventing gun violence and his opposition to the National Rifle Association. And for good reason: He has a strong record as the governor of Colorado.

Just a few months after the shooting at the Aurora movie theater in 2012, he made addressing gun violence a big part of his state of the state speech and pushed through background checks and a magazine capacity limit in a state that is purple and has a large swath of NRA support.

That said, the odds are still not in his favor. In a typical presidential primary campaign year, a popular former governor of a purple state with legitimate business credentials and a bootstrap story would be an immediate top-tier candidate, if not the front-runner.

2020 is different. Support for nominating another wealthy (even if self-made) white male politician to lead an increasingly diverse Democratic Party is waning.

So, how can he even break through at this point?

He should throw out the conventional advice about not running on a narrow set of issues and continue to position himself as the pragmatist, with a proven record of addressing gun violence. And he should play up that he is bold enough to do something no president has done and few elected officials have called for: suspend the death penalty.

I don’t want to hear more about his last name and the origin of it, or his mother’s view on the lighting in the X-rated movie she saw with him. He can save that for a cocktail party.

There are many great governors and elected officials with strong legislative records who don’t make great candidates and may not make great presidents. If Hickenlooper wants to move beyond 1% in early polling, he needs to find the places where he is comfortable, passionate and bold.

Even if he isn’t the nominee, he can use the platform of presidential candidacy to push the debate on important issues like gun violence and the death penalty. That is a contribution to the 2020 race, and ultimately the platform, of the eventual Democratic nominee.

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