DENVER -- One of the central claims of democracy is that wisdom percolates up from the heartland. As he prepares for Thursday's debate with President Bush, John Kerry might ponder the thoughts of Ken Salazar, Colorado's attorney general and one of the Democrats' best hopes for picking up a U.S. Senate seat this year.
Salazar, a moderate Democrat who faces beer magnate Pete Coors, has won twice statewide by picking up a lot of Republican votes. He unequivocally endorses Kerry but does not always appear when his party's nominee visits this state, which Democrats devoutly hope to turn into a battleground.
The remarkable thing is that the middle-of-the-road Salazar, being unencumbered by Washington's conventional wisdom, is willing to ask uncomfortable but entirely reasonable questions about whether the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could have been prevented.
Salazar wears black jeans and cowboy boots (but, being indoors, not his trademark cowboy hat) as he chats in a cluttered backroom of his campaign headquarters. He recalls that a commission chaired by his state's former Democratic senator, Gary Hart, and New Hampshire's former Republican senator Warren Rudman issued an eerily prescient report in early 2001 pointing to the likelihood of a catastrophic terrorist attack on our country.
Salazar is still curious as to why the Bush administration didn't take the Hart-Rudman report more seriously. He's also curious about what Bush did regarding that famous Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing that contained warnings of a terrorist attack.
Without making wild charges -- he's not that kind of guy -- Salazar suggests that Americans should want to know more about "two huge intelligence failures." He's referring to our government's failure to anticipate the attacks of Sept. 11 and "the intelligence failure that created the premise for the war in Iraq."
"Nobody," he says, "is being held accountable for these intelligence failures." Isn't this a matter that our president should be asked about in Thursday's debate -- especially what actions he took concerning that Aug. 6 memo? Or would such a question be just too terribly impolite? The reluctance to explore what Bush knew before Sept. 11 and what he did about it stands as one of the great mysteries of American journalism.
Ask Salazar how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution and he is unequivocal: He would have voted for it on the basis of the case President Bush made. But ask him how he'd vote in light of what we have learned since and his answer is one that Kerry might have considered. "It's not a fair question," Salazar replies, "because the matter would not have even been raised to the Congress if the facts had been known."
In any event, he says, "we're there now. We really need to look at how we move forward."
One of eight children -- all of whom became first-generation college graduates -- Salazar grew up on a farm in the San Luis Valley that didn't have a telephone or a television. (They had "a little radio," but the battery on which it operated often went out.) This ignites a passion for rural communities that are being left behind.
"I've always thought that somebody has to speak up for these rural communities," he says, referring to 45 counties in Colorado "that have been in economic decline over these last 30 years."
"They are the rural, agriculture-dependent counties that struggle," he says, "and many of them wither on the vine even when the rest of the country is doing very well."
Democrats were clobbered in rural America in the 2000 election. "Look at all the red in the interior," Salazar says, referring to the electoral maps pointing to Bush's countryside strongholds.
Salazar, who spent two years in a Franciscan seminary, understands the power of cultural issues that "create wedge divisions" and move rural voters toward Republicans. But he thinks Democrats need to challenge policies that send federal subsidies to "corporate landowners" and offer little relief to rural "main street businesses" or small farmers. Rural America, he says, is "the forgotten America." Democrats cannot hope to become the majority party without reducing Republican advantages in areas that are not doing well under Republican policies.
If Salazar wins, it will be because he cuts the usual Republican majorities in Colorado's ranching and farming counties. That would send a useful message to Republicans who take the rural vote for granted and to Democrats inclined to give up on the countryside. And Salazar's straight talk on the war against terrorism just might give John Kerry some useful cues.