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Colorado Governor Mum on Sen. Salazar Replacement

With Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar apparently headed to Barack Obama's Cabinet, the process of choosing his successor will come under intense scrutiny after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged attempts to sell a Senate seat there.

Colorado law gives Gov. Bill Ritter the power to name a replacement if Salazar is appointed interior secretary. Ritter, like Salazar, is a Democrat.

But if the Illinois scandal is influencing Ritter, the Colorado governor isn't saying. He fended off questions about Salazar and Blagojevich on Tuesday, saying it's too early to talk about any replacement.

"We'll have a process in place when the process is final, but I'm really not going to do more than to say today that Ken Salazar is a very effective United States senator," Ritter said. "We'll miss him. But I also think he has the potential of being one of the greatest secretaries of Interior that this country has seen."

An Obama transition team official said Monday that Salazar, 53, is Obama's choice for interior secretary. Salazar is a former director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources and, as senator, has opposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also has urged prudence in leasing Western lands for oil shale development.

It would be a tough choice for Ritter, a first-term governor, because Democrats want someone who can raise enough money to keep Salazar's seat, which comes up for election in 2010. Salazar had raised more than $2 million for re-election.

Potential successors include Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who won favor by hosting a successful Democratic National Convention this year, and Salazar's brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette said she had received several calls encouraging her to seek an appointment. Another candidate is Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who took a traditionally Republican seat in suburban Denver in 2006.

Ritter is known for appointing committees to study difficult issues before taking action. And one observer said he might do so with a Senate seat.

Ken Bickers, chair of the political science department at the University of Colorado, said appointing a committee to screen candidates could give Ritter both political cover and ensure transparency, especially after Illinois' experience.

Ritter, Bickers said, "will want something so he's not susceptible to any kind of allegation that it's a political payoff."

Having a panel recommend a Salazar replacement could limit damage to Ritter, who's also up for re-election in 2010, should that replacement seek election but fail to win, Bickers said.

Colorado recently has trended Democratic. In November, the state voted for Obama, elected a second Democratic senator, Mark Udall, and captured a Republican congressional seat. But Ken Salazar's centrism and willingness to defy party leaders have helped him in a state where there are more registered independent voters than either Democrats or Republicans.

Most states leave the choice of appointing U.S. senators to the governor. Last year, John Barrasso, a conservative Republican surgeon and Wyoming state senator, was picked by Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal to fill the seat of Sen. Craig Thomas, who died while being treated for leukemia. Wyoming law required the governor, a Democrat, to pick a Republican successor.