I’ll play Devil’s Advocate to Jeralyn’s post about Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s decision not to run for governor. While I think it is true that Hick can point to his decision to stay on as mayor as evidence that he is committed to the cause he sets out to undertake, he has done serious damage to his political capital in the meantime.

Democrats would have forgiven Hickenlooper for taking so long to come to a decision if he had said that he was going to run, but now will come the calculation of the cost to Democrats borne from weeks of indecision. By dragging out the decision, Hickenlooper seriously damaged the campaign of Democrat Bill Ritter. In the last few weeks the press had taken to calling Ritter “Poor Bill Ritter” because everywhere he went, he was dogged by the notion that many Democrats were hoping for another, stronger candidate in Hickenlooper. If Hick had run for governor, this doesn’t matter, because Democrats are still left with their strongest candidate at the top of the ticket. But Hickenlooper’s indecision has weakened the perception of Ritter as the Party’s second choice, and thus weakened the new (and again) frontrunner for the job.

Fairly or not, Hickenlooper will be criticized for not making this decision sooner. If he had announced three weeks ago that he was not going to run for governor, Democrats could have had time to being to coalesce behind Ritter; it’s not too late now, but it’s not the same, because the damage has been done. If you take your girlfriend to a party and then spend most of the night hitting on the hot blonde on the other side of the room, it’s hard to come back to your girlfriend at the end of the night and have a pleasant drive home. That’s what happened here: a rift that already existed between those who do and do not support Ritter was widened by those who believed Hickenlooper might enter the race. The danger here is that the public saw it all, and saw the second-billing that Ritter was receiving. Perception in politics is everything, and Hickenlooper’s indecision has damaged the perception of Ritter as the Democratic frontrunner.

Hickenlooper can get past this as a candidate, and unless something goes tragically wrong in the next 15 months, he will have no trouble winning re-election in Spring 2007. But the next time Hickenlooper talks about running for a higher office, like the U.S. Senate in 2008 (which Rep. Mark Udall has already spoken for), he won’t be able to call in the same chits that he could have called in for this race.

Frankly, I think Hick’s decision portends a future that may not include a run for higher office. This was the single greatest chance Hickenlooper will likely ever see for a run at statewide office, and he turned it down. The Democrats wanted to annoint him, the seat was open, his popularity is at almost unprecedented levels, and the Republicans are in the middle of what will probably be the nastiest primary fight Colorado has seen in decades. It wouldn’t have been an easy win, but it won’t ever get easier than 2006.

The longer Hickenlooper remains as mayor, it is inevitable that he will get less popular. Unless Sen. Wayne Allard retires in 2008, which is no guarantee, there won’t be another open seat in Colorado until the 2014 governor’s race, when Hickenlooper will be in his late 60s. Even if Allard does retire, Udall — one of the most popular Democrats in Colorado — will not be brushed aside by Democrats like Ritter would have been. If Bob Beauprez or Marc Holtzman win the gubernatorial race in 2006, Hickenlooper could consider a challenge in 2010, but then he’ll be facing an incumbent, with all of the benefits that incumbent politicians enjoy. Nobody in Colorado has knocked off an incumbent governor in decades.

So what does that leave him with? He could be in position to run for congress if and when Rep. Diana DeGette retires, but that will be a Democratic free-for-all. And even if he does go that route, and wins, he’s a long way from where he might have been. Hickenlooper would have been the odds-on favorite to win the governor’s seat in 2006, and that would have put him on the short list of Presidential contenders in the next 10-12 years. Maybe that doesn’t matter to him, and that’s perfectly fine, but that shows me a lot about where he sees himself in the next 20 years.

As an example of the bizarro-Hickenlooper, take Sen. Ken Salazar, who was Colorado’s attorney general when the U.S. Senate race suddenly opened up with Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell’s retirement in March 2004. Salazar had been planning on running for governor in 2006, but when opportunity knocked, Salazar not only answered…he kicked down the door. Now he is one of the most influential freshman Senators in years, and he is being mentioned as a potential candidate for Vice President in 2008. Salazar saw a door that was wide open, and he marched right through it. Hickenlooper saw that same door open in front of him; he stuck his head out, looked around, stepped back inside, stuck his head out some more, and then closed the door.

Did John Hickenlooper make the right decision in declining to run for governor? He did if that’s what he felt was best for him. But from a purely political standpoint, this move doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I don’t think it indicates a stronger politician in John Hickenlooper. Quite the opposite, in fact.