After A Quiet Weekend In South Carolina, Hickenlooper, Bennet Hope To Make Some Noise At This Week’s Presidential Debates

June 24, 2019
Photo: John Hickenlooper in South Carolina June 2019 - AP
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to the South Carolina Democratic Party convention on Saturday, June 22, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.

Kamala Harris gave a speech, entering the convention center here to the strains of a marching band. The night before, Cory Booker supporters were so numerous — and raucous — they almost stopped traffic outside of a museum.

There was no such electricity for Michael Bennet or John Hickenlooper in Columbia, S.C. Like most of the 20 or so presidential candidates who ran a three-day gauntlet of cold breakfasts and rubbery chicken wings, Colorado's Democratic senator and former governor were on the down low, as it were. While Hickenlooper and Bennet spoke before large crowds at the state convention as well as a fish fry sponsored by U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn, for the most part, the duo spent most of their time before more intimate gatherings, addressing issues ranging from gun control to health screenings.

On Saturday, as Bennet walked from a luncheon with local political leaders, a passerby gave him a slap on the back — it was California representative and fellow candidate Eric Swalwell, and there was no ticker tape or confetti trailing behind as he trod down the sidewalk alone. 

Harris and, to some extent, Booker, are in a group presently regarded as leading the race for the Democratic nomination. Also included in that pack are former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.  Bennet and Hickenlooper have been scrambling with everyone else trying to gain relevance — neither has risen above one percent in most national polls.

However, both are hoping that will change when they'll share the stage with eight other hopefuls at a Democratic debate in Miami on Thursday, June 27. Ten other candidates will meet the night before, June 26.

With so many candidates on stage, camera time will be at a premium, and chances are the evening's focus will be on Biden and Sanders. That pair will be center stage, while Hickenlooper and Bennet will be placed out on the edges. Hickenlooper will stands between self-help guru Marianne Williamson and California businessman Andrew Yang, and Bennet is between New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Swalwell.

Photo: Michael Bennet in South Carolina, June 2019 - AP
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet addresses the South Carolina Democratic Party conventionon Saturday, June 22, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.

At the Saturday luncheon, Bennet spoke eloquently on issues like education and immigration, lingering with the group far beyond the allotted time -- that won't work on Thursday, given the numbers and limited airtime.

"That's what I'm trying to do -- figure out how to reduce it all down to essential components," he said. "And then it's totally unpredictable, what's actually going to happen, because you don't know what the other people on the stage are gonna do and you don't know what the (hosts) are gonna do, so you just have to be very well prepared."

Hickenlooper joked that "there's a lot of information that's going to have squeeze into my head, because I think ... you're expected to be ready for, pretty much, incoming coming from any direction."

Since it became clear that both could qualify to be in the debates, Hickenlooper and Bennet have engaged in intense preparation. Each have run numerous mock debates -- with nine other people "on stage" playing the role of the other candidates, with the surrogates expected to deliver content in keeping with the person they're portraying.

That will continue this week, Bennet returning to Washington, D.C., from South Carolina; Hickenlooper going straight to Florida. But role-playing can only accomplish so much, especially when, as Hickenlooper said, they may be taking fire from an unexpected source. Along those lines, there's a school of thought that says an unknown candidate, like either of the Coloradans, can try to grab the spotlight via some sort of "viral moment" that will catapult him into the nation's collective consciousness.

Hickenlooper has seemingly been edging toward that in recent weeks, running a war of words (and a Twitter beef) with Sanders over the idea of socialism. But as of Saturday, Hickenlooper said he's not likely to go on the attack at the debate.

"That's never been my style; I want to create a positive vision, that, just when it seems the darkest, that's when you can do the greatest things," he said. "Now, I don't think socialism is the answer, and I'm going to say that loudly and clearly when the topic comes up, and I'm sure it will, but it doesn't have to be an attack on anybody."

Attack? Maybe not. But that doesn't mean there won't be anything up his sleeve.

"I think everyone goes up there with a pre-planned play, or a pre-planned line they want to run, whether that's in response to a particular candidate or a particular issue," said Lauren Hitt, Hickenlooper's communications director. " Everyone has that. So yeah, there are some plays we want to run; it's just a matter of it we get that opportunity."