Nothing wrong with a primary dust up

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We were a little surprised, and a little bemused, by the news that President Barack Obama has already endorsed a Colorado candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The election won’t be contested until November of next year, but that didn’t stop our decisive, even impetuous president from making his choice known: Michael Bennet.

Bennet, who has had a varied and successful career in business, education and government, was appointed to fill Ken Salazar’s unexpired term by Gov. Bill Ritter earlier this year, after Salazar resigned to become secretary of the interior.

Ritter’s choice was not universally applauded. Bennet, whose only political experience had been a stint as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, was virtually unknown to Coloradoans living outside the Denver metropolitan area. Given the choice, most Democrats might have preferred Andrew Romanoff, who had served as speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives during 2004-08.

Politically savvy, personally amiable and remarkably gifted at achieving bipartisan compromise on important legislation, Romanoff was liked and respected on both sides of the aisle.

After hesitating for several months, Romanoff officially declared his candidacy last week, as did Republican Jane Norton.

Norton, a Grand Junction native, has been involved with Colorado government and politics for more than two decades. From 1988-93 she served as regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services, and was subsequently elected to a term as lieutenant governor during the Owens administration. Norton joins a crowded Republican field, which includes two-term Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and Aurora City Councilman and charter school founder Ryan Frazier.

Meanwhile, former Rep. Scott McInnis and his erstwhile protégé, GOP state senate minority leader Josh Penry, are squaring off for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. And despite a few missteps, we think we know who the Democrats will nominate and who will receive the coveted presidential endorsement: Ritter.

We have no problem with President Obama’s support for Bennet. The president learned his politics in the rough-and-tumble school of Chicago’s South Side and, as last fall’s election showed, he can play hardball with the best of them.

He wants to make sure that Democrats hold on to the Salazar seat, and he’d like to avoid a bloody, expensive primary — and, like all Americans, he has the right to his opinion.

But the interests of Colorado residents are best served by grueling primaries between able candidates. Romanoff vs. Bennet, Norton vs. Buck and Frazier, McInnis vs. Penry — sounds like democracy to us.

Primaries have a purpose. They require incumbents, or candidates anointed by party insiders, to make their case to party members statewide. At their best, they allow the least likely of candidates to shine on a larger stage and surge forward to victory.

Remember 2007, when a young, relatively inexperienced Illinois senator launched his campaign for the nation’s highest office? He was derided by some for his hopeful audacity, but he contested every primary and every caucus, knocked off the favorites, gave Americans an unexpected choice — and won.

We don’t know who will prevail in our primaries, let alone emerge victorious during November 2010. Only two will succeed, and the rest will endure mercilessly public defeats.

During a 2008 interview with PBS’s “Frontline,” former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle talked about a meeting with Obama during 2006.

“He talks to you about the possibility of running for the presidency. What do you tell him?” Daschle was asked.

“I tell him he should do it,” Daschle said. “We went to my favorite restaurant and took the kitchen table in the back where nobody could see us. We had a bottle of wine and a great meal. … I argued that windows of opportunity for running for the presidency close quickly. And that he shouldn’t assume, if he passes up this window, that there will be another.”

Contested elections are the essence of our democracy. To the contestants, we applaud you for taking Daschle’s advice.

Seize the day, good luck — and thanks.