John Hickenlooper has consistently said he has no desire to confront any of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. But on Tuesday night in Detroit, Colorado's former governor discovered that CNN had other ideas.
Using a format in which candidates were asked to directly respond to statements or policies espoused by their peers, the cable network did everything but provide white gloves for the 10 participants to slap each in anticipation of a duel. This was perhaps most evident when Hickenlooper was asked if he thought Sen. Bernie Sanders was too "extreme" to beat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Hickenlooper said policies like Medicare For All or the Green New Deal approach to climate change "are disasters... you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump."
After saying the plight of soybean farmers in Iowa and crises internationally are indicative of "malpractice" by the president and where the Democratic Party needs to focus, Hickenlooper referenced the idea of forcing Americans to make "radical" changes. In response, Sanders raised his arms with a look of frustration.
"Throw your hands up," Hickenlooper said, raising his.
"All right," replied Sanders, doing just that.
"Oh ho, I can do it," Hickenlooper responded, once again raising his arms as the crowd in the Fox Theater roared.
While it made for strikingly good television (and the main video image on a Washington Post story on the debate), it was unclear how presidential the exchange was. It was equally uncertain whether it qualified as the viral moment some have opined that Hickenlooper needs to jumpstart a campaign that had lagged behind the likes of Sanders in national resonance and more importantly, fundraising.
It was certainly the biggest splash Hickenlooper made on a night when, according to The New York Times, he received the least airtime of any of the candidates — about eight minutes and 49 seconds.
That, in turn, led Hickenlooper to tell CBS News that he occasionally felt "starved for affection" on the debate stage.
More than possibly lacking a big splash, Hickenlooper may have been hurt more on Tuesday by sharing a stage, not with Sanders and fellow A-lister Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, but rather other candidates, who, like Hickenlooper, have been labeled as moderates.
One of his issues with the Green New Deal is a promise to provide a government job to everyone in America who wants one, an unreasonable idea to Hickenlooper. But it had to be somewhat disconcerting for his supporters to hear those same misgivings being expressed first by the likes of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan.
At the same time, Warren, in particular, was able to lump them together and attempt to dismiss them by saying their viewpoints provided talking points for Republicans.
Tuesday might have been the last hurrah for Hickenlooper on the debate stage as he hasn't met the qualifying threshold for the third round, scheduled for September in Houston. According to NPR, only seven of the 20 candidates in Detroit have qualified, although California entrepreneur Andrew Yang tweeted he's become No. 8. The DNC has disputed his poll count though.
Hickenlooper was scheduled to go to New York following the debate, a trip that was certain to include some fundraising. His campaign hoped that particular task would be made easier with a good showing in Detroit. Whether or not that actually happens depends on the thoughts of voters — or at least the people who write the checks.
The second night of the CNN debate is Wednesday and will feature fellow Coloradan Sen. Michael Bennet sharing the stage with former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.