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Convening in Colorado

The Baltimore Sun

DENVER - 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 media 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 people at the eastern edge of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

It's a mile high, as you might 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.

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, with hip-checking, high-sticking and nose-punching. Ratings could 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-quarters 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 federal one in the past three decades.

Even when there aren't lobbyists throwing around fistfuls of money - as they surely will during the convention's four-day run - 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 backdrop, the convention brings as many as 50,000 delegates, media and hangers-on. The Democratic leadership controls the schedule 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.

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.

The past 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 for a floor-to-ceiling view full of Rocky Mountains and skyscrapers, with the twinkling city at your feet.

If your hosts want to wow you with steak and Wild West atmosphere, someone might suggest the Buckhorn Exchange, said to be the oldest restaurant in town: It's been dishing out buffalo, rattlesnake and more traditional meat 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 highway 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.

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 into those places for 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.

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.

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.

Now, where to sleep?

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 a 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.)

The preferred candidate is the Brown Palace, the 1892 grande dame on 17th Street that, over the past century, has housed every president but Calvin Coolidge.

Alas, its three presidential suites are all named for Republicans - Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, all former guests. Still, I would 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. They rent for $1,200 to $2,200 nightly - and there's no more impressive lobby or tea service in town.

The new Ritz-Carlton, before renovation, 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.

For more down-to-earth wallets, there are also some reasonable hotel options (see box).

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.

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. 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."

Christopher Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Multiple carriers offer connecting flights from BWI Marshall to Denver. United Airlines offers nonstop service with round-trip airfares starting at about $344. Southwest offers nonstop service with one-way fares starting at $169.

LODGING

Here are some of the hotel options in downtown Denver:

Ritz-Carlton Denver, 1881 Curtis St.; 800-241-3333, ritz carlton.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, brownpal ace.com. This is Denver's old-school high-end option, open since 1892 with 230 rooms. Visited by every president in the past 100 years except Calvin Coolidge. Doubles $149 to $700.

Hotel Teatro, 1100 14th St.; 888-727-1200, 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 Four Seasons being built across the street. Doubles usually $189 to $329, more for suites.

Sheraton Denver Hotel, 1550 Court Place; 800-325-3535, 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, 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, theoxford hotel.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.

DINING

Rioja, 1431 Larimer Street; 303-820-2282, 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, vesta grill.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, dixons restaurant.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.

The Kitchen, 1039 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-544-5973, the kitchencafe.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.

INFORMATION

Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, denver.org.

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