INTERIOR:

Salazar's 3-day swing back home reopens political rumors

BOULDER, Colo. -- Maybe it's because he's back in his home state. Maybe it's the largely friendly audience. Or maybe it's a just pre-emptive attempt to fend off speculation about his political future.

Whatever the inspiration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wants everyone to know how much he likes his job.

"I have honestly, very simply, the very best job in the United States of America," Salazar told conferees gathered here the other day in the University of Colorado's Stadium Club, which provides an expansive view of the school's 54,000-seat football stadium and nearby mountains.

The Interior secretary was supposed to be talking about domestic energy production on public lands -- he was giving the lunchtime address at a forum sponsored by the Center of the American West and the Public Lands Foundation marking the 200th anniversary of a Bureau of Land Management predecessor.

But while he eventually focused on the topic at hand, Salazar spent the first few minutes largely extolling the marvels of his own post.

"I get to do the most wonderful things that anybody could ever imagine," Salazar said, going on to reference conservation efforts with Mexico and Canada and landmarks in Florida, Washington, Maine and California. "This job is really the crown jewel of the Cabinet of the United States."

The enthusiastic endorsement of his post appeared sincere -- Salazar also praised recently retired BLM Director Bob Abbey's "hell of a job." But at the same time, Salazar openly acknowledged that his name is occasionally floated for other posts.

"Often, when I am asked, if I would be offered a job like attorney general or something else within the Cabinet, would I consider it, I'd say 'No!' That's because I already have the best job in the United States of America," Salazar added. "I'm proud in that role to serve as a custodian of American's natural resources and America's natural heritage."

But Salazar, who made his remarks at the start of an official three-day swing through Colorado last week -- he also announced a new wilderness conservation area and promoted the America's Great Outdoors initiative -- doesn't dissuade speculation that he may one day return to state government when he occasionally laments leaving his last post as the state's senior senator.

"Frankly, when you look at this great state and the great people of Colorado, it's a hard thing to say ... I'll move from being a U.S. senator to being secretary of Interior," said Salazar, who claimed a 4-point victory over Coors Brewing Co. Chairman Pete Coors (R) to replace retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) in 2004.

"But I did it after lots of reflection, knowing that I could have much more of impact doing what I've been able to do over the last four years," he said.

Before Campbell's Senate seat became vacant in 2004, it was widely assumed that Salazar was gearing up to run for governor in 2006. He jumped into the Senate race at the urging of national Democratic leaders, when he became convinced he could win.

After his speech, Salazar declined to speculate on whether he could return to the state government, where he was once a popular official -- serving as the state attorney general in the early 2000s and in the early 1990s as executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

"We still have a lot of work to do. That's what I'm focused on now," Salazar said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters when asked whether he might seek the governor's office in the future.

The Hickenlooper question

Still, whether Salazar opts to return to state politics hinges in part on whether current Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) seeks re-election in 2014. Hickenlooper is in the middle of his first term.

"In terms of 2014, I think there has to be a clear decision by John Hickenlooper that he isn't running before Ken even begins to think about a gubernatorial campaign," said Rick Ridder, president of Denver-based RBI Strategies and Research, a Democratic firm.

Hickenlooper told Greenwire earlier this month that he intends to serve two terms, but the current governor's name has also been floated among potential 2016 presidential primary contenders -- as well as for a job in a second Obama administration, if the president is re-elected (Greenwire, Sept. 7).

Should the governor's office open up, Ridder noted Salazar remains "a very popular politician" in his home state, one who could potentially scare off other competitors.

"He carries very subtle but expansive power throughout the state," Ridder said. "You would have to be a very strong candidate to be able to beat Ken Salazar. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it would be a tough and difficult race."

Ridder pointed to Salazar's ability to capture the state's Hispanic vote, as well as his "crossover" appeal to Republicans on the state's Western Slope and in the south.

"He comes across as a moderate Democrat," Ridder said, adding that Salazar is "typical of other Democrats with very Western values -- some degree of independence, some degree of understanding of the Western way of life, land, water, family, small business."

But GOP consultant Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, suggested Salazar could face difficulties in a statewide race after serving in the Obama administration.

"The problem for Ken Salazar is he's no longer Ken Salazar; he's Ken 'Obama' Salazar for the rest of his career," Wadhams said. In an unusual appearance for a Cabinet official, Salazar even spoke at the recent Democratic National Convention, albeit in his personal capacity to avoid violating the federal Hatch Act (Greenwire, Sept. 5).

Wadhams asserted that even if President Obama wins a second term and carries the swing state of Colorado, Democrats would likely face midterm congressional losses in 2014, an effect that could spill over to the gubernatorial election.

Ridder dismissed the notion of Salazar's political affiliation as an albatross, however.

"Coloradoans are very proud of their politicians that go national. We consider that a contribution to our country," Ridder said. "And so I don't think it would hurt him at all. He might have to stand by some of his positions as secretary of the Interior, many of which environmentalists might find unattractive; others may in fact find it the right thing to have done."