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From left: Colorado's U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

If you buy the hottest political hype in Colorado at the moment, you’re sizing up the matchup for U.S. Senate between former Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a political schoolyard fight I’ve been waiting on for years.

Hick and Cory are like the two most popular kids in Colorado politics among their respective cliques. It seems inevitable for us to see them slugging it out verbally — with potentially no less than the fate of the nation in the balance.

Not to oversell it, but Democrats have to take Colorado’s seat as a path to power in the U.S. Senate. The Washington agenda can flip if Democrats can take out Gardner. But Democrats first have to pick a candidate who can win. Gardner is a skilled politician they can’t afford to take for granted in a statewide vote.

But does Hick want it? He’s suggested over and over than the Senate wasn’t really his bag.

But it’s more than that, I suspect. He’s accustomed to being the best-liked Democrat in the room, from Durango to Sterling, anyway. In a field of two dozen presidential hopefuls in Iowa, Hickenlooper was like the pattern in the drapes, appealing only if you bothered to pay attention.

In his farewell statement to his White House dreams, he said:

“You know, the people I’ve met across this country take their responsibility to choose a president so seriously. In big groups and small, in living rooms and diners and backyards, people shared with me their deepest fears and highest hopes. They want solutions. They want this country moving forward. They’re sick of the chaos and dysfunction of Washington, D.C., and I couldn’t agree with them more. I ran for president because this country is being ripped apart by politics and partisan games while our biggest problems go unsolved.”

His ill-fated run looked worse than it was, but it looked truly awful. Rounded off, Hickenlooper was polling at 0%, which makes it sound like not even his dog, best friend and campaign manager were behind him. It’s hard to come back from that and hit the trail to Swink and Dinosaur with a fire in your belly.

The Senate race already is crowded with quality Democrats who fall just a tier or two under the former governor in terms of name recognition and fundraising capability. He’s the tried-and-true political brand, if Hickenlooper gets in the race, but there’s fresh energy there, as well.

“I’m sorry Governor Hickenlooper’s presidential race didn’t work out,” said state Sen. Angela Williams, a Democrat from Denver with some of that fresh energy . “But he spent his time in Iowa running for president and as governor working and campaigning against bold, progressive solutions that will move Colorado and the country forward. If he’s going to switch gears and run for the Senate, he has a lot to explain to Colorado voters. This won’t be a coronation.”

Hickenlooper also got a tough homecoming from a local media personality, my friend Dan Caplis, on his 630 KHOW afternoon show on Aug. 7. It wound up showing a side of the normally affable and confident Hickenlooper that voters in Colorado haven’t seen — not necessarily wrong, but combative and frustrated.

How Hickenlooper comes down on the issue doesn’t change his standing with Republicans and most independents, but in a primary it’ll be how he stacks up with other Democrats.

Caplis tried repeatedly to get the governor to say if an abortion should be allowed during all nine months of pregnancy. Hickenlooper repeatedly answered that that’s a decision for a doctor and a woman to make, not “a lawmaker or a sheriff.”

About five minutes in, the governor said he was brought on the show to talk about gun violence in the wake of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. Caplis said his people had an agreement with Hickenlooper’s people to talk about anything, then he accused Hickenlooper of refusing to answer the question.

Neither seemed totally wrong and neither seemed totally right, and that’s a position that’s anathema to Hickenlooper’s collaborative spirit.

Gardner has his own snake pits along the campaign trail to worry about.

He is getting hit on three fronts in the current political environment, 15 months from Election Day. Democratic operatives are selling the idea he doesn’t hold public events, though he does. Gardner, like almost every Democratic front-runner, doesn’t publicize his appearances, which would give paid organizers the chance to stage protests there for the media. Why provide a stage for your opponents’ political theater?

Secondly and prominently, Gardner has to shake President Donald Trump off his back. Sure, he’s made some remarks and stood up to the president here and there, but Gardner is still a good Republican in Trump’s GOP. In Colorado, that won’t play well.

And, thirdly, and perhaps even more prominently, if Gardner finds himself in a race with Hickenlooper, is he up to the task of outshining a former barkeep who plucks a banjo and showers with his clothes on in campaign ads?

If you don’t think entertainment sells, remember who’s in the White House and how he got there.

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