Here’s Why John Hickenlooper and His Banjo Are Still in the 2020 Race

HANOVER, N.H. — Can John Hickenlooper interest you in a joke?

“What’s the opposite of woe?” Mr. Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor and still-presidential-candidate, asked inside a hotel reception room last week, testing a favorite equine comedy bit before tens of listeners. “Giddy up!” A few people giggled cooperatively.

All right, how about some biography?

“Time magazine called me one of the top-five big-city mayors in America,” he boasted, recalling his time leading Denver, as a couple of Dartmouth College students peeked at their phones.

O.K., O.K., why don’t we open it up for questions?

“Why not enter the 2020 Senate race?” asked Daisy Hagen, a 16-year-old visiting from Oregon for a debate camp.

“All right. Heh, heh,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, swimming a bit in a baggy blue-checkered button-down. “A fair question. You’re not the first person to ask.”

Mr. Hickenlooper, 67, will have one more — and quite possibly final — chance to break through on a national stage at the debate next week, though if his June performance is instructive, he is unlikely to see a definitive jump in fund-raising or polling. By September, the Democratic National Committee will impose far stricter benchmarks to qualify for the debates, and the historically large field will face a mathematically inevitable fate: Not everyone can catch fire.

The challenge Mr. Hickenlooper faces is, to some degree, the struggle of the majority of the 2020 candidates. Perhaps five out of two dozen Democrats can credibly claim to be resonating widely at this point.

[Where will John Hickenlooper stand during the CNN debates? Here are the lineups.]

President Trump’s unlikely rise has only encouraged runaway ambition in elected leaders, fueling a not-unreasonable belief that the volatility of today’s politics favors the bold — or, at least, that there is often little downside to giving a national campaign a try, and hanging on as long as possible.

Yet there is also a kind of Tolstoyan principle of presidential contests: All happy campaigns are alike; each flailing campaign flails in its own way. And Mr. Hickenlooper’s disappointment runs deeper than most of his peers’. It is easy to imagine him succeeding in a past cycle, as a popular, moderate two-term executive of a purple state, known for brokering deals on environmental issues and gun regulation. He has arrived instead at a moment of celebri-fied elections and simmering progressive opposition to Mr. Trump.

Nowhere is the disconnect more visceral for a long shot than in the rented reception halls in early-voting states across the country. Eyes migrate to the carpet patterns. Campaign stickers sit unstuck. Volunteer sign-up sheets remain wrenchingly white. It is the difference between polite applause and spontaneous affection, abiding a handshake and demanding a selfie. It is the difference between a former governor and a future president.

“I somehow don’t feel he’s got the punch,” said Rachel Rosenblum, 82, of Danbury, N.H., leaving the Hanover event a few minutes early.

A woman nearby noticed the small gathering through a window and approached Ms. Rosenblum, curious to know who had reserved the space. “Is that a private event?” she asked.

“No,” Ms. Rosenblum replied. “He wants to win the election.”

Other indignities have been more public. Before the first Democratic debate in Miami, a security guard mistook Mr. Hickenlooper for a reporter. In an appearance on “The View” last week, a host, Ana Navarro, confused him with Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington. “All white people look alike, apparently,” a co-host, Joy Behar, said.

It is a particularly humbling comedown for a man who, just a few years ago, garnered reasonably serious consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate — and who retains outsize status in Colorado as the spindly brewpub owner who made it big.

On the campaign trail, he has leaned on business analogies to explain himself. Asked in an interview about a recent staff exodus that saw his campaign manager, finance director and communications director leave, Mr. Hickenlooper recalled his personnel turnover once at an underperforming restaurant in Kentucky. “If you’re having trouble getting momentum,” he explained, “you have to adjust everything you can to achieve momentum.”

Asked by a voter how he might overcome the intractability of Mitch McConnell as president, Mr. Hickenlooper appeared to liken the Senate majority leader to a moody patron. “One of the basic rules in restaurants is when someone’s really angry, you repeat back to them what they said,” he said. “And in hearing their own words, they feel validated.”

“I’m not saying this will work with Mitch McConnell,” Mr. Hickenlooper added. Then again, he did not propose an alternative tack.

On policy, Mr. Hickenlooper has moved to establish himself as the sensible antidote to leftist overcorrection. In June, he earned cascading boos at the California state party convention with a speech rejecting socialism. “Did it catapult me into the lead?” Mr. Hickenlooper said in the interview. “Not yet.”

On personality, he has reached often for whimsy. He recounted during a CNN forum the time he accidentally went to an X-rated movie with his mother. (“So, I took my mother to see ‘Deep Throat.’”) He punched back playfully at a parody article from The Onion about his “ambitious $250 fund-raising goal.” (“Since you published, we’ve already met our goal and we are on track to do more,” Mr. Hickenlooper tweeted. He raised $1.1 million last quarter, placing him near the back of the 2020 pack.)

He turns down no opportunity to fetch a banjo and strum.

“Have you seen my YouTubes on the banjo?” he asked during the interview, reaching to tune an instrument he had just purchased for his family vacation home in Squam, N.H.

After months of internal friction and, according to Mr. Hickenlooper, a meeting at which several senior advisers suggested he drop out and run for the Senate, his new and remaining aides say this is their most viable strategy: letting Mr. Hickenlooper be himself. His circle now comprises a mix of true believers determined to see him shine and mercenary professionals happy to attach themselves to a presidential campaign. Recent hires have included veterans of the stalled prospective candidacy of Howard Schultz, the billionaire former chief executive of Starbucks, and the failed Chicago mayoral bid of William M. Daley.

There have been kinks.

“Somebody told me you like milkshakes,” Peter Cunningham, Mr. Hickenlooper’s new communications director, told him from behind the wheel of their New Hampshire rental car. Mr. Cunningham gestured toward the strawberry and chocolate shakes he had procured between events. Mr. Hickenlooper’s face fell a bit. “Vanilla milkshakes,” he said. He settled for strawberry.

But Mr. Hickenlooper has also retained admirers deeply committed to his cause. He was joined in Hanover by a friend and supporter, Minyoung Sohn, who appeared to choke up while introducing him. “I’m here because I love this man, John Hickenlooper,” he said. “I know we’re only polling one percent, but we’ve got a plan.”

Alan Salazar, a former senior Hickenlooper aide in Colorado, suggested it was a mistake to ever count him out. “Lightning can strike,” he said.

Mr. Hickenlooper appears genuinely surprised that it hasn’t yet, after years of bending local politics to his whims. As he prepared to enter the race several months ago, he privately assured associates he had a handle on how to distinguish himself.

“What struck me was how confident he was,” recalled Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator and two-time presidential candidate to whom Mr. Hickenlooper made a pilgrimage for a meeting before his 2020 run. “I just said, ‘John, it really costs a lot of money.’ He said, ‘I’ve got that covered, I have a lot of wealthy friends and friends who know wealthy people who have committed to raise whatever it takes.’ That made me a little nervous.”

In the interview, Mr. Hickenlooper acknowledged that he had “misjudged how difficult it would be to raise money with so many candidates.” And he conceded some frustration that his message was not resonating “as frequently as I’d like.”

“You saw that one TV reporter ask, ‘Does it bother you that you’re at zero percent in this poll?’” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “I felt like saying, ‘What are you kidding? Of course it bothers me.’”

But so far, he has betrayed no intention to step aside. On Thursday, he tweeted with pride, and a #GiddyUp hashtag, that a Fox News poll put him at 2 percent. “You did this,” he wrote. “This campaign is gaining serious momentum and we’re just getting started.” (The poll listed a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.)

In New Hampshire, Mr. Hickenlooper presented himself as a leader of singular experience in the field, as the governor of an economically diverse state. He took aim in the interview not at front-runners like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris but at the records of two other low-polling governors from the West: Mr. Inslee and Steve Bullock of Montana.

“Jay Inslee’s economic success is pretty much all in Seattle,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “Bullock, where’s his economic development?”

Mr. Hickenlooper insists he would present the strongest challenge to the president, pledging to defuse any Trumpian taunts with the slashing wit he forged growing up as “a skinny kid with a funny last name” and Coke-bottle glasses. “He’s going to come up to me and come up with some great nickname and I’m going to say, ‘That’s the best you can do?’” Mr. Hickenlooper told about 30 people at a backyard gathering in Laconia, N.H. “‘You couldn’t come up with Chickencooper or Poopenscooper?’”

He was joined for this event by his half brother, Sydney Kennedy, a rare attendee in a “HICKENLOOPER” shirt.

Mr. Kennedy, 74, was asked afterward how he thought the campaign was going. He held for eight seconds of silence. A few yards away, Mr. Hickenlooper retrieved the banjo from the back seat of the rental.

“How do I think it’s going?” Mr. Kennedy repeated, as the candidate plucked on. “John’s who he is, who he is.”

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