DENVER -- John Hickenlooper has rebuffed entreaties from his campaign staff to drop his White House bid and consider running for a Senate seat in Colorado, insisting he still has a path to win the Democratic presidential nomination, Democrats said Tuesday.
The former two-term Colorado governor is struggling to break through a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates. He's in the bottom tier of polling, hasn't generated significant fundraising and is at risk of being eliminated from the fall debates.
But that's not persuading Hickenlooper to become the first person to bow out of the largest Democratic presidential field in modern history. He insists he still has a chance, a belief that triggered the departure of four top aides, ranging from his campaign manager to his digital director.
The discussion about exiting the race was described by a Democrat familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. Politico first reported the conversations.
Hickenlooper on Monday night announced he hired a new campaign manager, M.E. Smith, a well-regarded operative who worked on Hickenlooper's successful reelection in 2014 and last year ran Sen. Bob Casey's winning campaign in Pennsylvania.
Smith was expected to run an outside group on Hickenlooper's behalf funded by his financial backers. She'll now be responsible for the entire campaign.
On Tuesday, Hickenlooper told MSNBC: "We felt that it was the right time for a change."
Hickenlooper's campaign manager Brad Komar, national finance director Dan Sorenson and digital director John Schueler have all left the campaign, and spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said she will be departing in the coming weeks.
According to people who have spoken to him, Hickenlooper still believes the race could break his way. He's watching whether former Vice President Joe Biden's stumbles at last week's debate might provide an opening to play a more dominant role as a leader of the party's moderate wing.
Hickenlooper thinks he could shine during the next Democratic presidential debate in Detroit later this month. That could help him generate a swell of small-dollar donors who could push him over his greatest obstacle: the Democratic National Committee's requirement that candidates receive donations from 130,000 people to make the stage of the third debate.
"Hard but doable," said Alan Salazar, a veteran Democratic strategist in Denver who was once Hickenlooper's gubernatorial chief of staff but does not work for his presidential bid. "He is one of the best networkers I have ever known, so it's probably a challenge he wants to take on."
It won't be easy for Hickenlooper. People familiar with the issue said his presidential bid, which has been active since March, has only 13,000 donors, one-tenth of the number needed to make the third debate. He was relatively quiet during the first debate, and acknowledged Tuesday that he was not a great debater.
"I'm not a former prosecutor, I don't go after the other candidates," Hickenlooper said on MSNBC in an apparent reference to California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dominated the debate.
The Senate race may not be an attractive or feasible option, either. Washington Democrats wooed Hickenlooper to challenge Sen. Cory Gardner, widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican senator, rather than run for president in 2020. Hickenlooper, however, has repeatedly said he wouldn't be interested in becoming a legislator.
"If the Senate is so good, how come all those senators are trying to get out?" Hickenlooper asked during a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club last month, referring to the half-dozen senators running for president.
There may not be room for him in the Senate race. A dozen Democrats have already announced challenges to Gardner. Two announced this week that they raised more than $1 million in the past quarter, more than Hickenlooper is thought to have raised for his presidential bid over the same period.
Hickenlooper has tried to establish himself as a leading moderate in the race, repeatedly warning Democrats that they risk being tagged as socialists by tacking too far to the left. He's tried to tout his unusual profile as a former businessman — Hickenlooper became rich founding a series of brewpubs — and governor of a swing state. But Democratic voters have appeared uninterested in his message, or at least the messenger.
On MSNBC, Hickenlooper admitted: "I'm not always the perfect spokesperson for my own ideas." But he also quoted his mother, who was twice widowed before she was 40: "You never quit."