POLITICS:

Opportunity at home calling Interior secretary

The Democratic nomination for Colorado governor is Ken Salazar's for the taking, and there appear to be few reasons President Obama's Interior secretary wouldn't ditch his Cabinet job to return home, replacing incumbent Bill Ritter on the party's ticket.

Winning would put the ambitious Salazar on a much better track for national office, such as being the first presidential or vice presidential nominee of Hispanic origin. And if he lost, the White House blessing he has received means he might be able to return, possibly to a better post.

Democrats have commissioned a poll to test the relative strengths of four candidates, according to The Denver Post: Salazar, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who launched a primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet after Ritter passed him over for the Senate slot.

At least two of those candidates, Hickenlooper and Perlmutter, have stated they would defer to Salazar.

"If he wants to do it, he is the candidate," said Colorado political expert Floyd Ciruli.

Salazar's departure would leave a key environmental Cabinet post open amid the debate over federal climate change and energy legislation. Some think the issue is dead in Congress, but that could make appointees in the administration even bigger players.

Potential replacements at Interior include term-limited New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who delivered a key endorsement for then-Sen. Obama, then had to withdraw from consideration as Commerce secretary amid a criminal investigation that faded when no charges were brought. There's also Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, who is now in his second tour at the post after serving under Bruce Babbitt in the 1990s. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has expressed interest in the past, and some are touting former Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Dan Beard, who now works for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as chief administrative officer of the House.

By tradition, the job goes to a Westerner, and usually one from a different state than the outgoing secretary. Other names that were mentioned when Obama was weighing his initial choice were former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D), Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) and Babbitt-era solicitor John Leshy. Three House Democrats were also mentioned in 2008: Washington's Norm Dicks, chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee; California's George Miller, former chairman of the Natural Resources Committee; and Washington's Jay Inslee.

A key question would be whether to fill the post quickly before the election, or leave the post unfilled, with Hayes acting in an interim role as secretary, and see how the election shakes out.

Republicans say that a Salazar race against likely Republican nominee Scott McInnis, a former congressman from Colorado's Western Slope, could nationalize the election into a debate over Obama's energy policies, health care plan and economic remedies. But Democrats see it as a boost for their statewide ticket, which includes the untested Bennet seeking to be elected to the Senate seat Ritter appointed him to after Salazar left for Interior.

Key battleground

Keeping the Colorado governor's mansion in Democratic hands could also be important to Obama for a 2012 re-election bid because Colorado is a battleground state with nine electoral votes and is increasingly seen as a bellwether for other Western swing states like New Mexico and Arizona.

"Colorado is a really crucial battleground state in the country right now," said Sam Thernstrom, who worked at President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality and is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "Winning that seat is very important. It's important in shaping the political environment in the state."

Obama gave Salazar his blessing to leave the Cabinet to run, according to The Denver Post. Thernstrom said Obama's political team likely had to weigh the difficulty of replacing an Interior secretary versus finding a stronger Democratic nominee for governor in Colorado.

"I don't think there's another candidate as strong as Salazar for the Democrats," Thernstrom said. "The Interior secretary is probably easier to replace."

Ciruli, a Denver pollster, said the sense that Salazar would run strengthened among Colorado's political class over the course of Tuesday evening as the news of Ritter's withdrawal settled in.

"Salazar would be first-tier," Ciruli said. "He's got experience, he's got gravitas, and he's Hispanic."

Salazar has made jarring turns in the past to seize political opportunities. He was on track to run for governor in 2004 when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) abruptly dropped his re-election bid amid reports of wrongdoing by his top aide. Sen. Mark Udall, then a congressman, announced his candidacy, but Salazar essentially pushed him out of the race 24 hours later.

Several observers of Interior and Colorado politics speculate that Salazar would like to be on the next Democratic ticket as the nominee for either vice president or president. Being governor of a key Western state positions him better than being Interior secretary. Interior secretaries, caught in a continual struggle between development and preservation, often wear out their welcome, and rarely move on to higher posts.

To that, Ciruli said, "Why not? It's prestigious having been pulled out of the Senate after only four years to serve in the Cabinet. And clearly, being governor of Colorado has moved way up in importance since Colorado became a battleground state."

But Salazar reportedly has made no announcement and doesn't feel any pressure to do so.

"Salazar has not come to any conclusions, and he doesn't feel particularly rushed," a source close to Salazar said today.

Colorado's call

For Salazar, the attraction of returning to Colorado likely is very strong, said one person who knows Salazar well but spoke on the condition of not being identified in order to speak freely.

"His pull to Colorado and his dedication to Colorado comes second to none," the source said. "Colorado is his heart. Ken's going to take a step back and weigh it heavily. He weighs a lot of different sides to things."

While Salazar's wife, Hope, is in Washington, D.C., his mother is still in Colorado, and that "may make him likely to come back," the source said.

Salazar's wife prefers living in Colorado, said former Sen. Campbell, who has known Salazar for years.

Salazar is expected to consult with family before deciding. In 2004, then-Colorado Attorney General Salazar traveled to his family home and visited his mother before deciding to enter the Senate race, the Salazar ally said.

Salazar is "probably the strongest candidate that the Democrats could put" on the ballot, having previously won the statewide offices of senator and attorney general, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. "He's high-profile, he's been very successful, he's still very popular."

The attraction for Democrats is that Salazar brings many attributes that could help him win, Straayer said, including that he has deep roots in the state, is Latino, and could win votes in the more conservative Western side of the state, where the likely Republican nominee McInnis is strong.

"I would make Salazar the very, very clear favorite" over McInnis, Straayer said, cautioning that a lot could change in 10 months.

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