01/11/2011 06:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Denver Mayoral Race Poised to Grab National Spotlight This Year

This isn't Chicago.

The president doesn't hail from the Mile High City, nor did his former chief of staff leave a Denver congressional seat to serve in the White House, only to return to run for mayor. And the new chief of staff isn't the current Denver mayor's brother.

In the first half of odd years, local politics rule, and let's be honest: the most newsworthy movers and shakers are either in or were in Chicago. A larger-than-life personality with a penchant for R-rated language, a guy who fainted in front of the president during his last introduction to a high-powered Washington job, and a host of Obama administration mainstays shuttling to and/or from the Windy City. These guys make for good copy.

But they're not the only folks at the nexus of an upcoming election. The New York Times realized this on Friday, when they took one of the most in-depth looks at our lame duck mayor and soon-to-be governor. That's a start, but with Chicago's mayoral election six weeks away, three months will remain before the next notable election anywhere in this country. The focus should eventually turn to Denver, but not simply because it's the default locale. There are gripping reasons why Denver's mayoral election should--and will--garner the national attention it deserves later this year.

One among them is the fact that, unlike in Chicago, where Rahm Emanuel is by every measure maintaining a significant lead, there's a more substantive race at hand in Denver. The insiders for Hick's job are City Council members Michael Hancock, Doug Linkhart, and Carol Boigon, experienced pols who will be able to deftly work with a council on which they once sat. Recent entrant Chris Romer, a state senator and son of former governor Roy Romer, also has clear existing political chops. The education-minded James Mejia has an interesting story and a favorite issue on which there is growing consensus. Danny Lopez is a veteran of a Denver city agency, and Michael Forrester could raise the profile of the city's growing LGBT community. When I get the scoop on Dwight Henson and Ken Simpson, I'll let you know.

Candidates matter, and so does the city itself. Chicago has chops for which most land-locked cities in this country strive, but that reputation was built on a mountain of corruption, both long-term and more recent. More rare is it than not to have an Illinois governor who doesn't face indictment, and the legendary city--while now a haven for entrepreneurs, buzzing with nightlife, diversity, and an immensely-devoted sports fan base--has a storied past filled with racial strife and tension between dueling demographic factions. Denver's chance to host the Democratic National Convention in 2008 marked 40 years since Chicago had done it. Denver's go-round was memorable and historic. Chicago's was, too--but for all the wrong reasons.

This is not meant to knock the Windy City--it is bigger, sexier, and has better and more famous defining movies (Bueller?). But what it's meant to say is that when Chicago's race ends next month, there's a more issues-driven race that can perhaps occupy the interests of the national audience. Policy rarely trumps personality when it comes to political coverage (inevitably, it devolves into standard horse race coverage, with particular interest for rumblings of or actual emergence of a scandal), but policy matters more when times are tough. Media consumers will be more engaged, desirous of how issues will affect them personally. The muck of campaign politics--while admittedly exciting and entertaining--is less tolerable when there are actual, substantive problems to tackle.

Denver residents rightly want to know how their next mayor will improve the city's schools, spur economic growth, and deliver balanced budgets. Folks outside of the state will also be curious for an election defined by an issues-driven debate in a city growing in national prominence.

The audition is already underway. But between February 22 and May 3, the nature and number of eyes watching will begin to change.