Social distancing has officially taken hold in the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. After last weekend’s state assembly, what was once a crowded field of candidates has narrowed to a number small enough to safely fit into a decent-sized living room.


Andrew Romanoff, the former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, was the choice of more than 85 percent of the people who participated in the online assembly, easily qualifying him for the June 30 primary ballot.


No other candidate received support from at least 30 percent of assembly delegates, which is the threshold required to get on that ballot through that method.


Former Gov. John Hickenlooper chose to skip the assembly and qualify for the ballot through the petition method.


In order to qualify for the Senate race by petition, candidates needed to collect at least 10,500 valid signatures from registered voters. Of that total, at least 1,500 signatures had to be collected from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.


Michelle Ferrigno Warren failed to collect enough valid signatures, but this week a judge ruled that her name also should appear on the ballot. The judge said social distancing rules put into place as a result of the COVID-19 virus made it practically impossible to meet the signature requirement for this year’s election.


Lorena Garcia, another candidate who failed to collect enough valid signatures, may use a similar legal argument to get on the ballot.


Even if she’s successful, that would leave only four candidates in a race in which, at one time or another, more than a dozen Democrats had expressed an interest. Some political commentators consider Gardner to be one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, thanks to his loyalty to President Donald Trump and Colorado’s recent trend toward left-leaning candidates.


Which, at least for a while, made running for Senate an appealing option for a lot of Democrats. The field of hopefuls was expected to narrow - and it did - after Hickenlooper abandoned his presidential campaign and decided to seek the Senate seat instead.


It was assumed by some in the party’s establishment that Hickenlooper had the best chance of unseating Gardner. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee threw its support behind Hickenlooper months ago, but that didn’t discourage a handful of other challengers from continuing the fight.


Romanoff, in particular, has cast himself in the role of the plucky underdog, a more liberal alternative to the hand-picked “safe” choice of the party’s leaders. Romanoff also has criticized Hickenlooper’s absences from debates and forums and suggested that the former governor might be looking at the Senate seat as a consolation prize since his presidential campaign never caught fire.


At least to some extent, that strategy seems to have worked. A little over a month ago, Romanoff trounced Hickenlooper in the balloting at the state caucuses. That outcome may have convinced Hickenlooper to qualify by petition rather than take his chances with the state assembly results.


However, the caucuses aren’t always a good indicator of what might happen in primary elections. Romanoff knows that all too well after beating Michael Bennet in the statewide caucuses before losing the Democratic primary for Colorado’s other U.S. Senate seat to him a decade ago.


Caucus voters tend to be the party’s true believers, who may be more energized by Romanoff’s support for issues like the Green New Deal and universal health care than the general Democratic electorate will be in June. Then again, we’ll see.


In any case, even with Ferrigno Warren and possibly Garcia on the ballot, Romanoff is a lot closer to a one-on-one showdown with Hickenlooper than he was six weeks ago.


It will be interesting to see how many debates or forums Hickenlooper will attend with his Democratic rivals now that the field has narrowed. With a big lead in fundraising and the support of the party’s power brokers, Hickenlooper might conclude he has little to gain by participating.


But that strategy would carry risks, too. His opponents could brand him as a chicken who lacks the necessary fire in the belly to effectively take the fight to Gardner in the general election.


While Hickenlooper might be the party establishment’s top choice now, that would change in a hurry if one of the other candidates were to upset him in the primary. Whoever the nominee is, Democrats are going to try to pull out all the stops to beat Gardner.


That’s as safe a bet as investing in hand sanitizer stock.


Blake Fontenay is The Pueblo Chieftain’s opinion page editor. To suggest topics for future Prairie Politics columns, please email him at bfontenay@chieftain.com.