Former Gov. John Hickenlooper threw some elbows and raised his hands during the Democratic presidential primary debates Tuesday in Detroit.
But it might have been his final appearance on the 2020 debate stage. Requirements to qualify for the next round of debates in September are substantially higher.
The brewpub founder delivered a message of “evolution, not revolution” on a stage dominated by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the leading liberal candidates in the primary.
Ten Democrats debated for two hours and 43 minutes at the historical downtown Fox Theater, kicking off the first of two nights in the second round of primary debates. CNN carried the exchange live.
Struggling to gain traction in a crowded primary field, Hickenlooper was among a chorus of moderate voices arguing that Democrats risk “a disaster at the ballot box” if they embrace some of Sanders’ and Warren’s more liberal policy proposals, including swift adoption of “Medicare for All” and sweeping Green New Deal legislation.
“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” Hickenlooper said.
Moments later, he mocked Sanders, saying: “I think if we’re going to force Americans to make these radical changes, they’re not going to go along. Throw your hands up, but you haven’t ...”
Sanders replied, “I will,” raising his hands aloft.
“I can do it,” Hickenlooper replied, throwing his hands up, too. “You can’t just spring a plan on the world and expect it to succeed.”
The former governor clashed several times with Sanders and Warren but could have been overshadowed by more aggressive fellow moderates who also have been polling in the cellar but held the microphone for heated exchanges with top-tier candidates.
A rush transcript of the debate compiled by ABC News says Hickenlooper spoke the fewest words on stage, even lagging author and spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson by a few dozen words.
Calling himself “as progressive as anybody up here on this stage” but “also pragmatic,” Hickenlooper took swings at the two leading candidates on topics ranging from health care to foreign policy.
“Last year, Democrats swept 40 Republican seats in the House, and not one of those 40 Democrats supported the policies of our front-runners at center stage,” Hickenlooper said. “I share their progressive values, but I’m a little more pragmatic.”
He repeated the story of his ascension from out-of-work geologist to brewpub owner, Denver mayor and then governor of a state with “the No. 1 economy in the country.”
“We expanded health care and reproductive rights, we expanded health care, we beat the NRA. We did not build massive government expansions.”
Warren shot back: “We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness. We’re going to solve them by being the Democratic Party of big structural change. We need to be the party that fights for our democracy and our economy to work for everyone.”
Hickenlooper has continued to brush off mounting pressure to abandon his White House run and instead challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, considered one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for election next year.
Warren at one point pushed back against the go-slow approach advocated by Hickenlooper and others on stage.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to point out what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said, drawing raucous cheers.
But Hickenlooper stuck to his guns.
“I’ve done the things that most of these other people are just talking about, and I know I can get results, and I can lead the people of this country toward a stronger, a healthier, and a more secure future and defeat Donald Trump and return this country to its glory.”
Colorado political analyst Eric Sondermann tweeted during the debate: “Wondering if Hick is spending his time not getting called (on) by studying Colorado Senate polling.” A recent poll showed Hickenlooper would be the clear front-runner if he joined the primary for Gardner’s seat.