DENVER - Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper won the Colorado governor's race Tuesday after a campaign in which the GOP nominee imploded and a third-party candidate made a late surge.

The Democrat is a former brew pub owner who benefited from the collapse of GOP nominee Dan Maes and a split in the state Republican Party. Immigration hard-liner Tom Tancredo got in the race as a third-party candidate but couldn't overcome Hickenlooper's widespread popularity.

Hickenlooper, 58, urged Coloradans "to focus on what we are for, not what we are against."

"Colorado has responded to a positive campaign," he said at a victory party in downtown Denver. "We set out from the very beginning to bring people together, and our campaign realized it was not just about winning.

"

Maes said he fought the good fight.

"We never quit, we never quit," Maes told supporters in Colorado Springs.

Tancredo called Hickenlooper to congratulate him, and he told supporters people will be talking about this race for a long time.

"I apologize to you for not being able to carry it across the finish line," Tancredo said Tuesday night at a gathering in suburban Denver. "I don't know where it goes from here. You gave us the ride of a lifetime."

In early returns statewide, Hickenlooper captured 53 percent of the vote, compared to Tancredo's 36 percent and Maes' 9 percent. In Boulder County, the margin was even wider - with 70 percent of voters choosing the Democrat, compared to one-quarter going for Tancredo and just 5 percent choosing Maes.

Louisville's Todd Lovrien, 47, a small businessman who often splits his ticket, said he voted for Hickenlooper even though he chouse Republican Ken Buck for Senate.

"I like what he's done in business," Lovrien said of Hickenlooper. "I've met him several times, and I think he'll do a good job."

Tom Howard, 50, a Louisville attorney who said he leans Democratic, said he focused on Colorado's needs when voting for governor.

"Hickenlooper has done a pretty good job," he said.

Tom Tancredo, the American Constitution Party’s candidate for Colorado governor, looks at results on television during an election night dinner for
Tom Tancredo, the American Constitution Party's candidate for Colorado governor, looks at results on television during an election night dinner for family and friends Tuesday in Aurora. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
"What it comes down to is what's happening here in Colorado."

Despite the gains made by Tancredo among Republican voters, Kim Tyrrell, 55, a commercial space designer from Louisville, stuck with the party primary winner, Maes.

"I want to see a change," said Tyrrell, whose main concerns are taxes and health care. "I want to Colorado be a Republican state."

Maes won the Republican primary but suffered a series of campaign gaffes, including questions about his murky law enforcement history and his views on U.N. global warming conspiracies involving bicycles in Denver.

Hickenlooper replaces Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who decided not to run for re-election.

Lew Wells, a nonprofit developer, said Hickenlooper stood above the fray.

"He didn't allow himself to be pulled into the muck, which is very important because our politics are so polarized," he said.

Hickenlooper refused to run attack ads against his opponents, saying Colorado's economic problems are much more serious than individual concerns. During the campaign, he spoke about his experience losing his job as a geologist and getting into the restaurant business.

Art Chapman, a 78-year-old retired electronics representative, said Hickenlooper will be a good leader.

"I am nothing but optimistic about his future as governor of Colorado," he said.

Tancredo, a former Republican congressman, joined the race as an American Constitution Party candidate after Maes refused to drop out following gaffes and questions about his character. Unless Maes gets at least 10 percent of the vote, the state GOP will be listed as a minor party for the next four years.

Democratic political consultant Steve Welchert said Hickenlooper had an advantage with his business experience running a Denver brew pub and his political experience running one of Colorado's largest cities. He also got a free ride for most of the campaign, running as the "anti-politician politician" while the Republican party splintered into fighting between Tancredo and Maes.

"He had the luxury of not going on the attack while the two Republicans split the opposition vote," Welchert said.

Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda and Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.