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Who should replace Salazar in the Senate? Go straight to the Hart.

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The names have been spinning through cyberspace since the first rumor that Ken Salazar might be headed to Barack Obama's cabinet, leaving a U.S. Senate seat open: John Hickenlooper, John Salazar, Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter, Andrew Romanoff, Tom Strickland. Even Federico Peña's name floated up — until he pulled it back on Saturday, content with his role as a volunteer Obama advisor and his paycheck from the private sector.

But another veteran politico whose name has yet to emerge (except in my own heated holiday conversations) is worthy of serious consideration: Gary Hart.

Yes, that Gary Hart. The former Colorado senator whose presidential candidacy was sunk by a cruise on the Monkey Business two decades ago. In the ensuing years, Hart has earned a reputation as a savvy elder statesman — and a perspicacious one, who as co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century issued three public reports warning of the United States's vulnerability to terrorist attack, well in advance of 9/11. Hart would hit the Senate floor running, an experienced hand who's an expert on some of the biggest challenges facing this country — an increasingly rambunctious Russia; the need for a more mobile military; the environmental ramifications of the push for energy self-sufficiency — and one who knows how to work both sides of the aisle. (And how: Hart was best man at John McCain's marriage to Cindy and, like the Republican presidential candidate, is a hale and hearty 72.)

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Gary Hart

There's just one caveat to this maverick concept: Hart, who's already spent a dozen years in the Senate, would have to agree that he's not running for reelection in 2010. That would give both Congress and new president Obama the benefit of his wisdom for two years; would give Hickenlooper, who's being pushed hard by the Denver Post, the chance to see the city through a very rough economic time; and would give all those would-be Colorado senators, Hick included, time to explore a real congressional campaign, to start raising funds, to prove they're really the best candidate for that competitive, coveted spot.

Yes, the Democratic Party would lose the advantage that an incumbent — even an incumbent of just a year's standing — would have in the 2010 Senate race against whatever candidate the Republican Party manages to scare up. (Peter Coors? Bob Schaffer? Talk about scary.) And Governor Bill Ritter, who must name Salazar's replacement, would lose the chance to make a Senate appointment that would bolster his own reelection chances in 2010.

But the entire state would gain from watching a lively political horse race — with a soon-to-be-retired thoroughbred waiting at the finish line.

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