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Alien nation: Colorado's election is out of this world

The scene last Friday was off-the-planet crazy — appropriate enough for a city considering a proposal to create an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission. But Initiative 300 is far from the wackiest item on next week's ballot. After all, there's also the election of the next governor of Colorado.

The Denver Botanic Gardens was the setting for yet another gubernatorial debate, and ten days from November 2, even the candidates were losing count of how many there'd been. The place was packed with supporters of Tom Tancredo, supporters of John Hickenlooper, what looked like every single person who might still be voting for Dan Maes — and just about the only thing everyone in the room could agree on was that plants are nice (as long as they aren't pot plants; only Tancredo wants to legalize marijuana). "People don't debate too much about plants," pronounced DBG director Brian Vogt, who knows all about the difference between plants and much more deeply rooted political beliefs, since he served in Governor Bill Owens's cabinet.

Fox anchor Ron Zappolo started off with a few thorny questions, first asking Tancredo if he regretted any of his controversial actions — labeling Miami a third-world country, advocating for literacy tests, suggesting we bomb Mecca. "That's pretty much all of it," Tancredo replied. "I do not regret saying any one of those things."

Any one of those things could easily be the focus of a negative ad — but when Zappolo moved on and asked Hickenlooper, who's vowed to keep his campaign positive, why Tancredo should not be governor, Hickenlooper nipped that tactic in the bud. "You're trying to force me into a verbal attack ad," he protested. The worst he'd say was that Tancredo, who's been in public service most of his life (as a teacher, a state legislator — back when he was one of the House Crazies — and a Reagan appointee before he ran for Congress), doesn't have much private-sector experience, the kind of experience you need if you want to get the economy on track.

And then Zappolo turned to Dan Maes, now polling below 10 percent, and asked why he was still in the race. "I matched the mayor in polls the week after the primary," Maes protested, then offered an explanation that showed why, as Molly Ivins might have said, you'd need to water him like the potted plants outside the door if his IQ was two points lower.

Of the three candidates on the stage, Maes was the only one I hadn't officially roasted — but then, he's done a very good job of roasting himself. I was tapped to roast Hickenlooper — whom I first met the day he and his partners opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company, Westword's neighbor for ten years — at a fundraiser for the infamous Chinook Foundation, when he was a do-gooder geologist-turned-saloonkeeper, and again for the I Have a Dream Foundation, shortly after he galloped past a crowded field in his very dark-horse candidacy for mayor. (Michael Bennet, then Hickenlooper's chief of staff, stole that show with a wry, dry humor you wish would show up in more of his Senate campaign.) Hickenlooper, who'd go to the opening of an envelope at the start of his political career, has poured out plenty of material over the years; still, a sendup of Tancredo basically writes itself. I was called on to help roast him in August 2009 — when the former presidential candidate would have been enjoying retirement, if he hadn't lost all his retirement money to a Bernie Madoff connection recommended by Mike Rosen — and all I had to do was pull Tancredo's greatest hits off the web. I didn't even need to resort to old clips from the days when Tancredo headed the Independence Institute and was a colleague on Colorado Inside Out, where every week he'd let loose with something on the level of bombing Mecca, usually punctuated with a giggle that made you forgive him. Or at least not strangle him. (For the top ten potential attack ads against Tancredo — and, yes, Zappolo did miss a few controversies — see my Wake-Up Call on the Latest Word.)

And now Tancredo is hard on Hickenlooper's heels in the most unlikely gubernatorial campaign ever. A year ago, Governor Bill Ritter — whom Hickenlooper had declined to take on back in 2006 — was still the apparent Democratic nominee. On the Republican side, Josh Penry was about to drop out, clearing the way for Republican power brokers — Tancredo included — to rally behind Scott McInnis at the "Platform to Prosperity" summit on November 23. None of these top GOPs was paying the slightest bit of attention to Tea Party darling Dan Maes (no thanks to his undercover experience in Kansas). Then in January, Ritter announced that he was not running again, leaving the way clear for Hickenlooper (who'd been passed over the previous January when Ritter had named Bennet to Ken Salazar's Senate seat). And in July, Tancredo, disgusted by Maes and McInnis, issued a challenge to both, declaring that if the victor of the Republican primary didn't drop out, he'd do something drastic. Maes won and stayed in the race — so Tancredo jumped in, too, as the American Constitution Party candidate. To his former fellow Republicans who immediately complained that he was essentially giving the race to Hickenlooper, Tancredo offered this: "It's not my fault, buddy. I have done everything for the Republican Party I could do."

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