The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘You are who?’ The lonely presidential campaign of John Hickenlooper

John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate and former governor of Colorado, arrives at Iowa Public Television in Johnston to tape an episode of “Iowa Press.” (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

SLATER, Iowa — John Hickenlooper was in the midst of explaining why he’s not worried about his standing in the 2020 presidential polls when something caught his eye outside the driver’s side window of his black SUV as it sped through the rolling countryside of central Iowa.

“There’s a little tractor out in the yard there,” the former Colorado governor said almost wistfully from the back seat, motioning across the highway toward an old piece of machinery parked in a clump of high grass, seemingly forgotten. “Just out there. By itself.”

This is how Hickenlooper has spent much of his time lately: long days in a car, staring out the window into the wide rural expanse of this first-in-the-nation caucus state, admiring old tractors and other roadside oddities as he goes from town to town trying to sell himself to Democratic voters as a “pragmatic progressive” with the best chance of beating President Trump.

As one of two dozen Democrats vying for the party nomination, Hickenlooper’s struggle to make a dent is emblematic of how difficult it is for a candidate — even a well-regarded former governor of a pivotal state — to break through in a historically large field in which being a mild-mannered 67-year-old white man hasn’t been the best selling point.

In 2016, the buzz around Hickenlooper was loud enough that Hillary Clinton vetted him to be her running mate. But three years later, Hickenlooper often finds himself talking to voters who have no idea who he is. A columnist for the New Hampshire Union-Leader recently likened the efforts of Hickenlooper — a former brewery owner — to “a fledgling IPA fighting for a tap in the neighborhood bar.”

That was evident during a recent visit to the Foundry, a beer hall and distillery in West Des Moines, where patrons eyed him with mild curiosity. “You are who?” a man said as Hickenlooper wandered near the bar. Upon learning Hickenlooper was running for president, he replied, “There are so many of you.”

In Cresco, Iowa, where Hickenlooper spoke at a local Democratic Party gathering, a woman mistook the former governor for Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), who is also running for president. “Two Coloradans,” the woman declared, as Hickenlooper walked away. “I can’t keep them straight.”

During a recent visit to the Des Moines farmers market, the unassuming Hickenlooper walked through the buyers in almost complete anonymity. He made little effort to call attention to himself, and the shoppers and merchants appeared to have no idea a presidential candidate was in their midst.

Hickenlooper’s road became even lonelier last week. Several top aides, including campaign manager Brad Komar, left the campaign or announced they would do so soon. Hickenlooper played down the departures, but a Democrat close to the campaign said the aides had urged him to drop his presidential bid and instead run for the Senate, which Hickenlooper refused to do.

In an interview, Hickenlooper, who has a sunny, glass-half-full disposition, professed optimism, acknowledging “challenges” but arguing that he has as much a chance as anyone to break out in a nomination battle that is still fluid, even though he’s polling at 1 percent or lower.

“I am not fraught with anxiety, at least not yet,” Hickenlooper said. “People underestimate me. They have always underestimated me.”

All he needs is one little spark, he argued. One brief moment.

The campaign has been marked by 14-hour days of doing whatever he can to generate that spark. Back home in Denver, he often wakes up before dawn to do cable news interviews in hopes of registering on the public radar. There’s fundraising to keep his campaign afloat and calls to Democrats around the country to make the case that he’s a viable candidate.

Hickenlooper’s pitch is that he can appeal to both liberal Democrats and the white working-class voters who have flocked to Trump. He entered the race in March as a businessman-turned-politician who had attracted notice for his ability to bring together warring political factions in a western swing state.

A former geologist who founded one of Colorado’s first microbreweries and turned it into a small chain of brewpubs throughout the Midwest, Hickenlooper was a celebrated mayor of Denver, known for bringing the city and suburbs together in an economic renaissance. That propelled him to the governor’s office in 2010, where his two terms earned him a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker even as he slowly edged Colorado, a state split almost 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, to the left.

On the trail, Hickenlooper brags of bringing “near-universal health-care coverage” to his state and signing tough environmental and gun-control laws. “I’m perhaps the one person running who has actually done what most everybody else has just talked about,” Hickenlooper told about 25 voters recently at a coffee shop in Mason City, Iowa.

But Hickenlooper also rejects some of the high-profile liberal initiatives embraced by other Democratic hopefuls. He is against Medicare-for-all, arguing there are “less disruptive ways” of achieving universal health care. And while citing a “sense of urgency” on climate change, Hickenlooper opposes the Green New Deal, saying it could never win Republican support.

He’s sought a similar middle path on immigration. At a deli in Boone, Iowa, Dean Lyons, a utility company manager, asked Hickenlooper what he would do about the “mess” at the border. The former governor replied, “We need borders. And we need people to obey the law. You cannot continue to have laws that people don’t obey.”

But he also said the nation can’t ignore the humanitarian issues at the border or its need for low-skilled workers, and he listed several policy ideas, such as a 10-year renewable visa program. Afterward, Lyons praised the nuanced answer but also stressed Hickenlooper’s long odds. “I was pretty impressed with him,” Lyons said. “But he’s got a long road to get up the ladder.”

Hickenlooper has recently tried to stand out by being ever more aggressive about the party’s leftward turn, arguing that “socialism is not the answer” and that embracing it will only lead to a Democratic defeat. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up reelecting the worst president ever in American history,” he has argued.

That line elicited boos from liberal attendees at last month’s California Democratic Convention in San Francisco, a reaction that lit up social media and attracted the first significant headlines of his campaign.

But the same line attracted polite nods in Iowa, where Hickenlooper hopes his “extreme moderate” message, as he calls it, will catch fire with a Midwestern electorate that often prefers middle-of-the-road candidates.

Hickenlooper’s core argument is that he has the experience to solve the “crisis of division” that threatens to tear the country apart. “I am rarely the smartest person in the room, but what I am really good at is what this country really needs,” he said. “I believe that not only can I beat Donald Trump, but that I am the person that can bring people together on the other side and actually get stuff done.”

That message, along with Hickenlooper’s mellow demeanor, doesn’t always play well with Democratic voters eager to wage war. Within seconds of Hickenlooper wrapping up the event in Mason City, Craig Wollman, a 71-year-old retiree from Clear Lake, declared the ex-governor a “lightweight.”

Wollman said he had a hard time imagining Hickenlooper going toe-to-toe with Trump on a debate stage. “How is he going to have the charisma to overcome Mr. Fake News?” Wollman said, referring to Trump.

Hickenlooper’s answer is an echo of the 1980s film “Revenge of the Nerds.” A self-described geek who spent most of his life wearing Coke-bottle glasses until he experienced what he calls the “miracle of LASIK surgery,” Hickenlooper said he has plenty of experience facing down schoolyard bullies. Trump’s taunts, he insisted, “won’t get under my skin.”

In Colorado, Hickenlooper used ads and other stunts to help him stand out. In one of his most famous spots, he stood fully clothed in a shower to protest dirty campaigning. But in the 2020 race he’s played it safe, though he now says he is considering “an ad or something” that might help him make a splash.

A man who came to politics late — he was 51 when he was elected mayor of Denver in 2003 — Hickenlooper rarely mentions his colorful biography, including a period after college when he dabbled in nude self-portraiture and hung out with Yoko Ono. After he lost his job as a geologist in the 1980s energy bust, Hickenlooper, who once dreamed of being a writer, co-wrote a script for the television show “Moonlighting” that was picked up but never filmed because the show was canceled.

Many of his campaign stops are in bars and breweries, where he tells how he and a group of friends scraped together the money to open a craft brewery in a struggling Denver neighborhood, which not only sparked a beer craze in Colorado but also contributed to the city’s economic revitalization.

Sometimes it seems as though Hickenlooper just likes talking about beer and touring revitalized buildings. At the Foundry he lingered past his scheduled departure time, walking through the facility with an attitude of wide-eyed wonder.

He repeatedly used the word “bouquet” to invoke the appeal of a fragrant, tasty beverage, talked about his experience as a brewer and offered to set up the owners with his own contacts in the industry. He sounded more like a business mentor than a man vying to be leader of the free world.

To hear Hickenlooper tell it, that’s how you win — making a quiet impression and showing interest in people personally, rather than being just another pushy candidate. He likened it to the touches you learn in opening a bar — how to position the stools closer together to get people talking, and how to reach out to customers as a bartender so they want to come back. “It’s amazing how a personal touch will resonate,” he said.

On a recent Saturday, Hickenlooper quietly walked the streets of the state’s annual Pride festival, where he stopped to play Jenga with a group of teenage girls — startling them when he carefully removed and repositioned a block in a tower that seemed on the brink of collapse.

He never introduced himself. One of the girls, Sierra Jones, 16, giggled when told Hickenlooper was running for president. “I had no idea who he was,” she said. “But I won’t forget him.”