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Swept up in politics

Times Staff Writer

Greetings, superdelegates, standard delegates, compromised Floridians, miffed Michiganders, would-be VPs and all-access VIPs. As you and the other Democrats convene here Aug. 25 to formally choose a presidential candidate at last, you will be wined, dined, wooed, spun, schmoozed, queried, denounced and perhaps bamboozled by all manner of unreliable operatives, members of the press and, of course, one another.

Don’t trust those people. Trust me.

For instance, if, over a welcome cocktail, one of the locals seems to be inviting you to partake in some Dazbog with Hickenlooper, your drink has not been drugged and this is not a Justice Department sting. Dazbog is a popular local coffee brand. John Hickenlooper is Denver’s mayor. And Denver, for the record, is a city of 570,000 at the eastern edge of the Front Range.

It’s a mile high, as you may have heard. More to the point, it’s the capital of Colorado, one of several Western states that leaned slightly right in 2004. Had they leaned slightly left, John Kerry would be in the White House. If I were a Democratic strategist, I would have put the party here too.

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Once you’re here, you may encounter either a Dazbog or a Hickenlooper in LoHi or SoCo, which is what some people call the Lower Highlands and South-of-Colfax neighborhoods. Nearby lies LoDo, which stands for Lower Downtown.

A word to those of you who backed presumptive nominee Barack Obama from the beginning: If a couple of burly Clinton people show up to bury the hatchet and offer you a free ride to the convention center on 14th Street, take evasive action. The Colorado Convention Center is a big, beautiful building in the heart of downtown, and Denver’s taxpayers spent about $300 million to expand it four years ago -- but that’s not where the party is.

The delegate floor will be a few miles away at the Pepsi Center, which holds more seats and houses Denver’s pro basketball and hockey teams (the Nuggets and the Avalanche, respectively). In fact, this convention could be a bit like those hockey games: Though hip-checking, high-sticking and nose-punching are officially discouraged, legions will be rooting for just that, and ratings may depend on it.

A note to those of you whose hearts remain with Hillary Clinton: If one of the Obama people invites you over to the Sheraton and mentions a Supreme Court appointment, don’t get your hopes up. That’s what the Sheraton calls its cafe and nightclub. At this Supreme Court, happy hour starts at 4:30 p.m. and the nacho plates go for $8.50.

During the convention, about three-fourths of the 1,225 rooms upstairs will be occupied by the California and New York delegations -- which means that in three days, more liberal opinions will be heard at the Sheraton’s Supreme Court than have been heard at the other one in the last three decades.

Even when there aren’t lobbyists throwing around fistfuls of money -- as they surely will during the convention’s run Aug. 25 to 28 -- it’s easy to have fun here.

Since its first gold rush in the 1850s, Denver has been a boom-and-bust town neighbored by an embarrassment of outdoor temptations, including skiing in the Rockies and hiking, running and biking in the foothills.

To this mix, the convention will add as many as 50,000 delegates, media and hangers-on. The Democratic leadership controls the schedule (sessions will probably run from about 3 to about 9 p.m., Mountain time) and about 17,000 of the area’s 38,000 hotel rooms, so those people will decide not only when everyone gets to sleep but also where.

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In other words, if you’re not a superdelegate and your next Denver visit will not be during the convention, you’re in a better position to use some of this advice.

Newer attractions

The last two decades of high-tech industry growth have been good for Denver, as evidenced by the Pepsi Center (opened 1999); the 1,100-room Hyatt Regency Denver (opened 2005); the Colorado Convention Center (opened 2004); the $110-million Hamilton building at the Denver Art Museum (an addition that opened in 2006); and the 202-room Ritz-Carlton (opened January), which, beginning in about 2010, is to be rivaled by a new Four Seasons hotel.

For a bird’s-eye glimpse of these and other wonders (yes, those buses on the 16th Street Mall are free public transportation), step right up to the Hyatt (convention headquarters) and take the express elevator to the 27th-floor Peaks Lounge. There you’ll get a floor-to-ceiling view full of Rocky Mountains and skyscrapers, with the twinkling city at your feet.

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If your hosts want to wow you with steak and Wild West atmosphere, someone may suggest the Buckhorn Exchange, said to be the oldest restaurant in town: It’s been dishing out buffalo, rattlesnake and such since 1893.

Some flesh-eating locals prefer Elway’s (owned by John, the former Broncos quarterback), either the original one in the Cherry Creek area (about three miles southeast of downtown) or the new one in the Ritz-Carlton downtown, which features a dining room full of blown-glass in fiery hues and a power table (eight chairs, round) that’s half-encircled by stacks of wine bottles. It’s called the wine-tower table.

Or, to eat in a notably green way, head 45 minutes up the freeway to Pearl Street in Boulder and pull up a chair at the Kitchen. Its electricity comes from wind power. Ingredients come from nearby growers, straws are biodegradable, scraps go to compost, uncooked food goes home with staffers and wine corks get recycled into tiles. Sunset magazine calls this the greenest restaurant in the West. The food tastes good too.

No charge

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Don’t be impressed when some usually frugal committee chair offers you a tour of the state Capitol building, a prowl through the natural wonders at Red Rocks Park or Dinosaur Ridge, or tasting tours of the Celestial Seasonings tea headquarters in Boulder or the Coors brewery in Golden. Everybody gets in those places free.

No doubt some proud locals will drag you to the shiny, pointy Daniel Libeskind-designed new building of the Denver Art Museum, and I suppose you’ll have to be polite. It does look great from outside, a playful complement to the public library next door by Michael Graves, and it offers plenty of activities for kids.

But think about the difficulty of displaying art in a building with so few straight-standing walls. If presidential contenders were as hostile to constituents as Libeskind’s museum building is to the display of art, they’d still be scheming for positions on their local Effluent Oversight Boards.

Amid so much shiny newness, you will be tempted to sneak off for a drink at some place that has a little grit or history or both. This could be My Brother’s Bar, a signless, TV-free watering hole at 2376 15th St. (at Platte), in business since 1873, making it the oldest saloon in town. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Jack Kerouac’s reckless buddy Neal Cassady used to drink under this tin ceiling and in the biergarten outside.

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You’ll know you’ve found the place when you hear violins. The speakers play classical music nonstop, apparently because some long-ago bartender was also a classical DJ.

For some place less beat and more sleek, head for the Oxford Hotel’s Cruise Room, which is full of ‘30s touches that were actually applied in the ‘30s. The entire bar is suffused with a racy red glow and appears to have been smuggled off the Queen Mary when dockside security wasn’t looking.

You could also demand to hear tunes at the Pec -- El Chapultepec bar at Market Street and 20th. If you go, don’t wear your congressional testimony suit. It’s the city’s most venerated jazz venue, but a humble joint (“hot burritos and cool jazz nightly,” the flaking walls say), a block from Coors Field on a corner full of bars. (Coors Field is where the Rockies play baseball -- well enough last year to reach the World Series, badly enough this year to be a rival for last place.)

In the same block or two as the Pec, you’ll find the Cowboy Lounge, LoDo’s Bar & Grill, the Tavern and the Giggling Grizzly. In the 19th century, historians say, about 1,100 prostitutes and 17 opium dens operated on Market between 18th and 23rd. Current figures on these trades are unavailable, but even before the March unpleasantness involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (a Democrat) and his premium-priced call girl, the Denver Post was forecasting a convention boom in adult-entertainment bookings of various stripes.

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But don’t let any of that deter you from sightseeing. On 14th Street near Colfax, for instance, you will find a 42-foot-high, 10,000-pound blue bear peering into the Convention Center. This is not a Sierra Club stunt; it’s art, completed in 2005 by Denver sculptor Lawrence Argent. But if you need a visual for a speech on the state of Wall Street, look no further.

If you’d prefer some audio, trot over to the Federal Reserve Bank’s branch office on Curtis Street between 15th and 16th streets. There you will hear howling beasts, mysterious voices and thundering hoofbeats rising from the sidewalk grate. These are not the sounds of federal economic policy being made (though that may explain a lot), but another public art project, this one strictly audio, made in the early 1990s by sound artist Jim Green.

Burnishing the image

Now, some words for the presumptive nominee: If you want to look rugged and outdoorsy (without straying far from your pollsters or hotel), head over to Confluence Park or the REI outdoor goods flagship store next door. Here you can put a kayak into a little whitewater course on the South Platte River or step inside and attack a rock-climbing wall that towers nearly as high as the federal deficit.

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To send a symbolic nod toward African Americans, stop by the Black American West Museum in the Five Points neighborhood, where museum Executive Director La Wanna Larson is ready to tell about how one in three cowboys in the American West was black, how 15 of Colorado’s ghost towns were predominantly black and how light-skinned blacks infiltrated and spied on the Colorado Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.

If you want to look smart or give a shout-out to small business, stick your head into Tattered Cover Bookstore, at 16th and Wynkoop in LoDo. It’s one of the nation’s leading independent booksellers, a vast and inviting space, all those books in a reclaimed warehouse and the scent of coffee in the air. Beware the second floor: There’s a Stephen Colbert cutout up there, and you don’t want to be upstaged by a cardboard pseudo-Republican.

Of course, you’ll be doing photo ops. For reasons of nomenclature and symbolism, the following restaurants and bars are not recommended: the Squealing Pig, Mad Greens, Red Square Euro Bistro, Coyote Ugly Saloon and the Clockwork Orange room of the Milk nightclub. Don’t be seen entering the Diamond Cabaret & Steakhouse either. It’s a topless bar near convention headquarters. Soon after approving a staff visit there in 2003, the president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitor Bureau found himself looking for a new job.

Stay away from the historic Sugar Building at 1530 16th St. too, unless you want to add some bleak perspective to the national conversation about race. That old box of a building may house Gumbo’s and Illegal Pete’s restaurants now, but Metropolitan State College history professor and tour leader Kevin Rucker says it was a KKK meeting place in the 1920s, when Denver’s mayor and Colorado’s governor were avowed KKK members.

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Power suites

Now, where should Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (assuming she’ll be there) sleep? Separate rooms, yes. Separate hotels, yes again.

Among the downtown possibilities: The presidential suite at the smallish, historic Oxford Hotel on 17th Street features twin fireplaces, two bathrooms and a four-poster bed in 750 square feet, renting for $1,000 nightly.

The stylish Hotel Teatro on 14th Street (which occupies a 1911 building that once held the Denver Trolley system headquarters) offers an 1,100-square-foot “chancellor’s suite” that has accommodated Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Sheryl Crow, and goes for $1,500 nightly. (For $20,000, they’ll carpet it with rose petals, give you his-and-hers Rolexes and generally treat you like a monarch who need not bother with elections.)

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But those are longshot choices. The bottom line is Clinton should find consolation at the Brown Palace, the 1892 grande dame on 17th Street that over the last century has housed every president but Calvin Coolidge.

Inconveniently, its three presidential suites are all named for Republicans -- Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, all former guests. Still, I’d suggest the Eisenhower Suite. The white columns in the dining room and the blue-carpeted living room give it a certain Oval Office vibe, and the blazing red bedroom is, well, a blazing red bedroom. Anyway, they rent for $1,200 to $2,200 nightly -- and there’s no more impressive lobby or tea service in town.

For Obama, bearing in mind his humble beginnings, shorter experience, superior funding and fresh triumph, the proper symbolic choice is the new Ritz-Carlton. Before renovation, it was an Embassy Suites. Now its best suite measures a generous 3,000-plus square feet, complete with a telescope for scanning the Rockies and a bathtub that looks down on Coors Field. It’s $3,000 a night, or about as much as the candidate raised in the time it took to read this sentence.

Of course, some conventioneers may feel uncomfortable placing all their trust in my advice alone. I understand. That’s why our itinerary includes two final stops, beginning with Rockmount Ranch Wear, outfitters of cowboys (and the politicians, actors and rock stars who admire them) since 1946.

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Step through the door at 1626 Wazee St. between 8 a.m. and noon on a weekday and you’re likely to be greeted by the chief executive, Jack A. Weil, the man who created snap-button shirts and sawtooth pockets on Western shirts. On March 27, Weil celebrated his 107th birthday.

Yet since Rockmount opened its retail space in 2005, he has sat up front, chatting up browsers and offering candy to their children. Behind his chair hangs a congratulatory note to Weil (a longtime Republican) from President Bush on his 105th birthday.

His advice for the conventioneers:

“I think a guy should be a Democrat until he makes a little money,” he told me. “And then, if he wants to save it, he should become a Republican.”

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And finally we head back to Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek mingles with the South Platte and Denverites sneak away from their offices to walk, run, pedal, picnic and fly kites.

One sunny spring day, 15-year-old Tyler Hinton of Boulder was practicing white-water moves in a kayak. Kneeling instead of sitting, and paddling with one blade instead of two, he swooped and spun in the water.

Of course I wanted to know whether Tyler had any advice for any candidate, Democrat or Republican, in this long, strange campaign. He didn’t. So I phrased the question another way. Tyler, if you were up a creek, and you lost your paddle. . . .

“Oh,” he said, smiling. “I close my eyes, point downstream, and hope nothing bad happens.”

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Sounds like a plan.

--

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

--

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Planning this trip

THE BEST WAY

From LAX, United, Southwest, American, Frontier and Delta offer nonstop service to Denver. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $260.

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The following hotels are in downtown Denver.

Ritz-Carlton Denver, 1881 Curtis St.; (800) 241-3333, www.ritzcarlton.com. Opened in January with 202 rooms, including some of the biggest in town. Spa opened in May. An easy stroll from the 16th Street Mall. Signature restaurant is Elway’s, mostly steak. Doubles $199 to $299, more for suites.

Brown Palace Hotel, 321 17th St.; (800) 321-2599, www.brownpalace.com. This is Denver’s old-school high-end option, open since 1892 with 230 rooms. Visited by every president in the last 100 years except Calvin Coolidge. Doubles $149 to $700, more for suites.

Hotel Teatro, 1100 14th St.; (888) 727-1200, www.hotelteatro.com. Stylish independent 110-room hotel with the well-regarded Restaurant Kevin Taylor (mostly French, dinner only) and Prima restaurant (mostly Italian, three meals daily) downstairs. (Three years ago, Zagat’s citizen critics named the Teatro their favorite hotel in town.) One potential annoyance: a new Four Seasons being built across the street. Doubles usually $189 to $329, more for suites.

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Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center, 650 15th St., (800) 233-1234 or (303) 436-1234, www.denverregency.hyatt.com. A gleaming 37-story, full-service behemoth with 1,100 rooms, opened in 2005. Doubles $159 to $300, more for suites.

Sheraton Denver Hotel, 1550 Court Place; (800) 325-3535, www.sheraton.com/denver. Known until April as the Adam’s Mark, this set of twin towers has 1,225 rooms. Doubles from $329, more for suites.

Curtis Hotel, 1405 Curtis St.; (800) 525-6651, www.thecurtis.com. Formerly a business hotel called the Executive Tower, this 336-room property was reborn in January 2007 as a pop-culture shrine, sprinkled with bright colors and references to TV, movies, music and toys. Doubles $229 and up, more for suites.

The Oxford Hotel, 1600 17th St.; (800) 228-5838, www.theoxfordhotel.com. A five-story brick Victorian landmark, built in 1891 near the train station in Lower Downtown. It has 80 rooms, period furnishings, and a bustling seafood restaurant and bar downstairs. Doubles $160 to $310, more for suites.

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WHERE TO EAT

Rioja, 1431 Larimer Street; (303) 820-2282, www.riojadenver.com. Mediterranean overtones in a 19th century brick building. Dinner daily. Lunch Wednesdays through Fridays. Brunch Saturdays and Sundays. Dinners typically $16.50 to $28.

Vesta Dipping Grill, 1822 Blake St.; (303) 296-1970, www.vestagrill.com. Brick walls, dark wood floors, swirly booths and pointy lights make for exotic atmosphere, as do the array of sauces (sweet, savory and spicy) that accompany most main dishes. Dinner only, typically $16 to $35.

Dixons Downtown Grill, 1610 16th St.; (303) 573-6100, www.dixonsrestaurant.com. In a Craftsman-style dining room with American and Mexican food, Dixons caters to a power-lunch crowd but also offers $7.99 specials. Breakfast, lunch, dinner are served. Dinners are $8.99 to $19.99.

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The Kitchen, 1039 Pearl St., Boulder; (303) 544-5973, www.thekitchencafe.com. Opened in 2004. A “community bistro” that’s big on local ingredients. Anointed greenest restaurant in the West by Sunset magazine. Casual wine-and-beer lounge upstairs. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. The menu changes nightly, with dinners costing typically $23 to $29.

TO LEARN MORE

Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.denver.org.

On travel.latimes.com

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For more scenes of Denver, see latimes.com/denver


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