By Keith Coffman
DENVER, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Stepping away after consoling families and victims in the latest of a string of violent shootings in his state, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appeared to sag a bit, his ebullient personality replaced by a more somber tone.
"It has been a tough year," he told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference last week about a student who came to a suburban Denver high school with a shotgun, a machete and three Molotov cocktails and shot a schoolmate in the face.
A grim procession of natural disasters and gun violence in Colorado over the past two years has taken a toll that polls suggest may leave the 61-year-old former Denver mayor vulnerable as he faces re-election next year, even as the crises have raised his profile on the national stage.
Less than half of voters surveyed in the state say they would choose Hickenlooper over a field of potential Republican challengers, and the governor's approval rating has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, two recent polls showed.
Democrats say his efforts to help the state recover from devastating wildfires and floods last summer will work in Hickenlooper's favor, boosting his image as Colorado's consoler-in-chief while showing his tireless devotion to the state. The most destructive wildfire in state history killed two people this year, and flooding in September caused eight deaths.
But blowback from a tough series of gun control laws enacted after a gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of a Batman film in the Denver suburb of Aurora in July 2012, killing 12 people and injuring dozens more, damaged Democrats in the state. Anger over the laws, which included a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and background checks for all gun sales, resulted in the recall of two Democratic state senators and the resignation of a third.
"John Hickenlooper does not have much room to breathe the Rocky Mountain air, and certainly no clear sailing back to the statehouse," said Tim Malloy, assistant polling director at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. "The new gun-control laws sit very badly with Colorado gun owners."
Just after the Aurora massacre, Hickenlooper's approval rating was 66 percent, according to Quinnipiac. By last month, it had dropped to 48 percent. Some 49 percent said he does not deserve a second term, while 42 percent said he does.
In addition to the theater rampage and last week's high school shooting, the state's prisons chief, Tom Clements, was gunned down at his home in March in what police said appeared to be a targeted killing.
Hickenlooper also backed a $1 billion income tax increase proposal that voters overwhelmingly rejected, and many complain about the pace of economic recovery.
Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, along with the governorship. But Colorado is what political analysts call a "purple" state, with almost equal numbers of Democratic, Republican and independent voters.
TOP OF HIS GAME
Unlike Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown, who has hewed a centrist path despite large legislative majorities, Hickenlooper has not reined in the liberal impulses of his colleagues, ruffling some moderates and conservatives, analysts said.
"When he first ran for governor, Hickenlooper had great appeal to the Colorado electorate because he is a 'purple' politician like the rest of the state," said Norman Provizer, a political scientist at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "He is not an ideologue; he is more a businessman with a social conscience."
Hickenlooper beat his Republican opponent in 2010 by a wide margin, 15 percent, in a race in which a third party candidate, Tom Tancredo, split the conservative vote with a Republican who lost key backing after questions were raised about his resume.
In his first two years as governor, Republicans had control of the state House of Representatives, which independent Denver political analyst Floyd Ciruli gave Hickenlooper political cover and played to his image as a moderate.
But an aggressive agenda on the part of legislative Democrats who now hold majorities in both houses and who Hickenlooper seemed unwilling to confront gave ammunition to potential opponents, Ciruli said.
"The governor has been unable to rein in the extreme elements of his party," Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said. "He did not use his veto pen once this year."
Still, analysts said it was far too early to write Hickenlooper's political obituary.
The Republican Party in Colorado is fractured between pragmatists and Tea Party groups, and a messy primary could weaken the eventual nominee, Ciruli said. The governor could regain momentum with a strong, bipartisan State of the State address when the legislature reconvenes in January.
While both Quinnipiac and North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling surveys show approval ratings for Hickenlooper at just under 50 percent, both also showed that Hickenlooper would win over likely Republican opponents. The PPP poll showed Hickenlooper with 48 percent support, an 8 percentage point lead over Tancredo, who is expected to seek the Republican nomination.
The Quinnipiac poll of 1,206 registered voters, conducted Nov. 15-18, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. The Public Policy Polling survey of 928 voters conducted Dec. 3-4, had an error margin of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. (Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)