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The REAL Problem for Bill Ritter

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Today The Denver Post has another story on Democrat Bill Ritter and his stance on abortion, which he has modified over the past several months to basically say that he is pro-life but would not actively work against abortion. He does not, however, answer the question about whether he would sign a bill to ban abortion if elected governor, but that’s another story altogether.

Today’s story comes on the heels of two articles on the same day last week in The Denver Post. Ritter can’t seem to escape this albatross of an issue around his neck, no matter what he says (and you could make the case that he isn’t really digging his way out). I’ve said it before in this space, but I think it’s worth saying again: The abortion issue is not what is keeping Ritter from gaining more traction. It’s Ritter.

Ritter is a frustrating candidate to watch because he keeps falling into his own trap, desperately trying to answer the wrong questions. His problems are not because of his stance on abortion. The focus on this one issue, to me, misses the point about what really troubles Ritter as a candidate:

He’s boring.

For the past 10 months, Ritter has run for governor like the calculating prosecutor he once was. He’s always trying to rationalize his opinion on abortion, and when he’s not doing that, he tries to make a logical case for why he should be the Democratic Party’s nominee. He addresses potential supporters like he is addressing a jury. He debates himself when he talks to crowds, offering dissertations on his merits as a candidate. He is careful. He is deliberate. He is bland.

Rather than trying to make an argument for why he is the best candidate, Ritter needs to start telling people why he is the best candidate. He comes across as being unsure of himself, as though he needs to convince Bill Ritter that what he is saying makes sense. There is no air of confidence surrounding him.

I can’t recall ever hearing someone say, “Did you hear that speech that Ritter gave? Wow! That was impressive.” Ritter needs a “Wow” factor much more than he needs a better answer on abortion.

Sen. Ken Salazar’s endorsement of Ritter last week was a clear effort to get Democrats to fall in line now that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has pulled himself out of the running for governor. That’s not good for Ritter. He needs the actions of others – Salazar’s endorsement and Hickenlooper’s refusal to run – to validate his candidacy, because he hasn’t been able to inspire Democrats on his own.

Abortion is, and always will be, a divisive issue in politics. I won’t dispute that. But saying that Ritter’s problems all stem from his stance on this one issue is really oversimplifying the problem for the former Denver DA. There are pro-choice Democrats who are never going to support Ritter because of his abortion stance, and that’s something that he’s probably not going to be able to fix, no matter how he keeps dancing on and around the issue. Ritter selected Barbara O’Brien as his running mate in January, in no small part because she is pro-choice. Maybe that will help ease concern among those who don’t use abortion as a litmus test, but it still isn’t addressing the core problem in Ritter’s candidacy. He still isn’t generating excitement and inspiring, let alone leading, other Democrats.

Ritter’s inability to inspire is somewhat surprising to anyone who knows the man. He is an engaging guy one-on-one and does have a certain innate charisma about him, but when he speaks to groups or interacts with others in a larger setting, that charisma evaporates. Ritter doesn’t incite passion in a crowd. He doesn’t tap into the emotional side of trying to lead people. He doesn’t seem to make Democrats feel like they are looking at their next governor.

Perception is everything in politics, with emotion being a close second, and Ritter’s biggest problems are in these two areas. He seems, at times, to go through the motions, running his campaign as though he were following a step-by-step “how to campaign” book. He even wears a nametag to events – a nametag! If people in the room don’t already know who you are, a nametag isn’t going to solve the problem. A nametag says, “I’m not that important, because if I were, you would already know who I am.” When you are your Party’s leading candidate for the highest office in the state, you shouldn’t be wearing a nametag.

Ritter has a great personal story to tell, but he’s only recently gotten around to talking about it instead of going on and on trying to clarify his position on abortion. I’ve talked about the importance of Ritter’s story before in this space, because I think he wasted so much time wringing his hands over abortion that he hung the issue albatross around his own neck. Ritter made himself into “the abortion candidate” because he never talked about anything else. If the only thing people know about you is that you are pro-life and the former Denver District Attorney, what do you expect them to focus on?

Telling his personal story is a good start, and he needs to continue to talk about who he is, what he’s done, and how that shapes him as a candidate in order to build that personality in people’s minds. Republican Bob Beauprez is always talking about his dairy farm upbringing because it creates an image for people to associate with. Ken Salazar did the same thing with his rancher persona.

Ritter has no interesting persona about him, and he has no energy. He doesn’t grab the campaign by the tail and shake it and make it his. He waits patiently for something to happen to him, like Hickenlooper getting out of the race. You almost think his strategy is to wait it out and hope the other candidates will just get bored and go home. This sort of patience has not served Ritter well.

It was for this reason that I was really curious to see what Ritter would say after Hickenlooper announced last week that he wouldn’t be running for governor. After the word leaked out, Ritter’s campaign called a press conference to respond to Hick’s announcement. Every news organization in the area was going to be at that press conference, and they were all going to repeat to everyone in Colorado whatever Ritter said. It was a perfect opportunity to plant his flag in the ground and show Democrats that he was a true leader.

And he said…well, nothing:

As a Denver voter, I’m glad the mayor has decided to complete the ambitious agenda he set forward 2½ years ago. There’s much work still to be done on creating new jobs, improving our schools and ending homelessness. I look forward to working with him to accomplish these goals.

I know John Hickenlooper well. I have the greatest amount of respect for him and his vision for Denver. I’m excited about being the next governor of Colorado while John Hickenlooper is the mayor of Denver.
His decision is good for Democrats, good for the state and good for our future.

I’m in this race to win. I’ve been to every corner of Colorado, listening to concerns and sharing ideas about how we can make a lasting difference in people’s lives and realize Colorado’s unfulfilled promise.

Look at how much of that statement is about Hickenlooper. Why? When it’s your turn to make your pitch as a candidate, you don’t make it all about somebody else. Nobody was waiting to hear if he liked John Hickenlooper. “I’m in this race to win” is his most direct line in that entire statement, as though the words actually mean something. That’s the one line I associate with Ritter, and it’s meaningless. What else would you be in this race for? The chance to meet people from different Rotary Clubs? The chili suppers?

The scary thing for Ritter should be that you almost expected him to say something milquetoast following the Hickenlooper announcement, and he didn’t disappoint. Nobody was bustling afterward about his remarks. There was no JFK-like line to be repeated, no “Ask not what your country can do for you” kind of statement that makes people’s ears perk up and pay attention.

Of course, none of this matters much to the average voter, who isn’t paying attention now anyway. But make no mistake — it does matter. Ritter needs the support of enthusiastic Democrats in order to generate the momentum he needs to become Colorado’s next governor. He needs a buzz. He needs people to talk about him with fire in their eyes. He needs to start to look like a leader – not just of Colorado, but a leader of the Democratic Party.

It’s interesting to compare Ritter to Hickenlooper, because one of the main reasons that Hick is so popular, and was courted so strongly to run for governor, is because he is a captivating personality. Most people probably can’t even name something that Hick has accomplished as mayor, but they know him, and they believe they like him, because he has created a curious and interesting persona. Ritter can’t be the same character that Hickenlooper is, and he shouldn’t try to be, but he needs his own bit of candidate magic…and soon.

Ritter continues to give off the perception that he is a pretty good candidate if the Democrats can’t find anybody else. People look away because he doesn’t do anything to hold their attention. If House Majority Leader Alice Madden doesn’t run for governor, Ritter will be the Democratic Party nominee by default (please don’t bother me with Gary Lindstrom – it’s not happening), and that’s not good. By the end of the 2004 Presidential election, John Kerry had been reduced to just being not George Bush, and as we all saw, that didn’t work out so well.

Ritter is like Lima Beans, trying to force himself down your throat and telling you that it’s good for you. If he would add a little chocolate syrup, he would go down a lot easier. When he finds some emotion and starts to inspire people, individual issues like abortion won’t matter so much anymore. People will finally have something else to talk about when they mention his name.

Ritter keeps searching for a good answer to the abortion issue, and he’s going to keep searching. Unfortunately, that isn’t the question.

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