AMES, Iowa — In John Hickenlooper’s first joint appearance with candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Colorado’s former governor sought to contrast his real-world record with the rhetoric coming from a field that already includes six U.S. senators.
“I think an awful lot of people in Congress are great at coming up with visions. They’re great at debating the issues; we need dreamers and debaters,” Hickenlooper said. “I’m a doer. … I feel like I’m the one person that has actually gotten people together and gotten stuff done.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who’ve both announced their candidacies, also spoke at a fundraiser for the Story County Democrats. Hickenlooper is nearing a formal bid following the completion of his second term as governor in January.
Some 300 Democrats from across the state braved freezing drizzle and a blizzard warning Saturday to hear the candidates and sample a variety of homemade soups and breads.
Harris, who is leading in early polls and spoke first, was a magnet for selfies and autographs upon entering the church dining hall where the fundraiser was held. She later gave a stump speech with precision. It was a mix of lecture and sermon: She shook her fist and occasionally pointed her finger to the sky as if to add an exclamation point.
“What we all know is that we are better than this,” Harris said, referring to President Donald Trump without naming him. “And this is a moment that is requiring us to fight for we are. So fight we will.”
Joe Amon, The Denver PostFormer Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro speaks at the Story County Democrats Soup Supper at the Collegiate United Methodist Church Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
Castro, like Hickenlooper, is low on name recognition but has a growing team in Iowa and has made many more trips to the first caucus state. He emphasized that and his support of Iowa Democrats in 2018 state and congressional elections, a wink and a nod meant to build rapport with voters here who reward retail politics.
Castro spoke last and delivered a smooth stemwinder. Before starting, he moved the podium aside, took the microphone in his hand and spoke at the edge of the stage.
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“I’m running for president because I think it’s time for new energy and new leadership,” he said. “I’m running because I believe in the 21st century, our great nation needs to be the smartest, healthiest, fairest and the most prospers nation on earth.”
While each speaker had their own take on the party’s policy priorities — climate change, the minimum wage, gun control — all three stressed unifying the country.
“Let’s go into 2020 with optimism in our hearts, knowing that we are better than this, knowing that we are prepared to fight for the best of who we are, knowing our strength, knowing our potential, knowing we can see what we can be unburdened by what we recently have been,” Harris said, closing her speech.
Hickenlooper was starkly different than Harris and Castro. His speech was choppy and he used note cards. But it was friendly, peppered with jokes and his trademark policy accomplishments.
If Saturday night’s dinner was a test for the future of his candidacy, he appeared to pass.
Joe Amon, The Denver PostJoe Van Erdewyk claps as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Story County Democrats Soup Supper at the Collegiate United Methodist Church Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
“He’s folksy as all hell,” said Joe Van Erdewyk, who chanted “run, John, run,” as Hickenlooper left the hall.
“He really illustrated that during his time as governor he has the qualities of what’s required of a president, which is making decisions, not being a political party head,” Van Erdewyk said. “He seems like he would at least be a good voice to stir the conversation about what we need.”
Hickenlooper’s track record and approach impressed others, who said they’d consider him once he formally announces.
“It takes decision-making,” said Ammertte Deibert, an Ames resident who took detailed notes while each spoke. “I think that kind of experience will help him in his campaign.”
However, among those who spoke to The Denver Post after the event, Castro edged out the competition.
“He had a lot of good things to say,” Bry Walton said of Castro, adding that he reminds her of former President Barack Obama. Castro’s story of giving up his job as an attorney in order to cast a vote against a client while on the San Antonio City Council was especially powerful, Walton said.
Of course, all three Democrats had to compete with candidates who weren’t in the room, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator was the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic primary, and after announcing a second bid last week raised a reported $6 million in just 24 hours.
Lemuel Anderson supported Sanders in 2016, and he said Saturday night that Hickenlooper did little to convince him to back a different candidate in 2020.
“His main message seemed to be that he can be a compromiser,” Anderson said. “I’m a Democrat — I’m even more liberal than most Democrats. And Hickenlooper is not, to me, he’s not progressive enough on policy.”
Standing beside Hickenlooper Saturday night were Sam Roecker and Ferguson Yacyshyn, two Iowa political operatives who were recently hired to help him navigate the state’s complicated caucus system.
Earlier in the day, Hickenlooper made appearances in other western Iowa towns, including Sioux City.
His Iowa trip overlapped with that another Colorado Democrat considering a presidential bid, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Bennet, who was not at the soup dinner, made several stops in Iowa in a trip that began Thursday.