DENVER | Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday he won't run for Colorado governor in 2010 and instead threw his support behind Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper for the job.
Mr. Salazar, considered the strongest of Colorado's potential Democratic candidates, said he wanted to continue to implement his agenda at Interior, notably his work on public lands and the clean-energy economy.
"John Hickenlooper is a uniter. He transcends political and geographic divides to bring people together to develop solutions," Mr. Salazar said. "If he decides to run, he will make an excellent governor for the state of Colorado."
As of Thursday, Mr. Hickenlooper hadn't decided, saying he wanted to take more time to weigh the move.
"This doesn't change our course. My family and I will take the appropriate time to consider whether a run for governor is the right thing to do," Mr. Hickenlooper said.
The jostling over the gubernatorial race came a day after Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. stunned the state's political establishment by announcing he would not seek a second term. Mr. Ritter had no strong primary challengers and had been expected to win the nomination easily.
He said at a press conference that he needed to spend more time with his family and that the decision was "intensely personal."
While the outcome of the Democratic primary wasn't in doubt, Mr. Ritter was expected to face a much tougher battle in the general election. Former Rep. Scott McInnis, the presumptive Republican nominee, led the governor by eight percentage points in a Rasmussen poll released in December, although Mr. Ritter insisted the race was "absolutely winnable."
The exit of an incumbent Democrat normally would be viewed as good news for Republicans, but in this case, the GOP may have been better off running against Mr. Ritter. The governor made a series of missteps during his first term that were expected to come back to haunt him during the election.
Republicans had targeted Mr. Ritter for raising property taxes and automobile fees, approving the early release of some felony prisoners, and most of all, for signing an executive order giving limited collective-bargaining power to state employees' unions.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be compelled to take a stand on those issues, said Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams.
"He may not be on the ballot, but the Ritter record is going to be front and center in this election," Mr. Wadhams said.
Mr. Hickenlooper benefits from statewide name recognition and high approval ratings. The mayor isn't as closely associated with the Obama administration or national Democrats as is Mr. Salazar, making it tougher for Republicans to tie him to unpopular White House or congressional policies.
"Salazar was associated very closely with the administration," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "This is going to be an election all about Washington incumbents, the administration, and he would have been the representative of the administration. He wouldn't have been able to get any distance."
Not so with Mr. Hickenlooper, who holds a nonpartisan office and, aside from his role as host during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, isn't viewed as a party insider.
"Hickenlooper is very independent. He's hard to tie to the Democratic Party in general, much less with the Obama administration," Mr. Ciruli said.
One potential drawback is that Mr. Hickenlooper hails from Denver, making him vulnerable to the "urban liberal" label in a state with significant numbers of conservative rural voters. Because he's only run for mayor, he hasn't been compelled to divulge his positions on many hot-button state and national issues.
"Hickenlooper has never run in a partisan election, and as mayor, he's never dealt with the tough issues facing state politicians," Mr. Wadhams said. "The quirky, personality-based campaign ain't gonna work in 2010."
Other possible Democratic contenders include Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who's currently challenging Sen. Michael Bennett for the party's Senate nomination but could change his mind.