Michael Bennet took a quick leave of his coffee on the patio table outside the Market on Larimer in Denver on Tuesday to collect his iPad from his car.
The senior senator from Colorado realized how much the presidential campaign reminded him of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here." In the 1935 satirical novel, the fictional Sen. Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip won the White House with a bombastic, America-first campaign.
"I can't wrap my head around the idea of Donald Trump being president . I just can't," the Hillary Clinton ally had said a few minutes earlier, his right hand wrapped tightly around his paper coffee cup, which seemed to belie his calm demeanor.
It was as close as Bennet came in the conversation to knocking a Republican, including his Nov. 8 opponent, El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn.
In an era of scorched-earth campaigns and partisan gridlock, Bennet sees himself as something of a political throwback for adhering to compromise. He and his supporters say it's what sets him apart from Glenn, who has criticized Republican leaders for working with Democrats.
"You can't get anything done in Washington unless you're willing to work with the other side," Bennet said in the 9News debate Oct. 11.
Work with Republicans
In citing his proudest Washington accomplishments, Bennet doesn't hesitate to mention the Republicans who helped him.
Famously, Bennet was a member of the Gang of Eight - four Democratic senators and four Republicans, including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida - who created and passed a comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013, only to see Republicans in the House bottle it up.
"That was extremely frustrating," Bennet concedes. "Because I know if it could have gotten it on the floor (for a vote) it could have passed."
Bennett talks about people helped by the breakthrough therapies provision he got passed into law with Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah in 2012, which has led to FDA approval of new cancer-fighting drugs.
He credits another Republican, Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, for partnering to bring the Pikes Peak National Cemetery for veterans to El Paso County, and Lamborn and Sen. Cory Gardner of Yuma, for reducing proposed troop cuts for Fort Carson.
"I think I've learned that there are a hundred different ways to be a senator," Bennet said. "For better or for worse, my inclination is to try to run to help solve something that needs to be solved. That's not the way all these senators act. They're not only not solving anything, they're trying to stop things from getting solved."
In a headline in The Washington Post magazine in June, the publication called Bennet, "The Can-Do Senator in a Can't-Do Congress."
After maintaining he was undecided on the Trans Pacific Partnership, he announced this month that he would oppose President Barack Obama's 12-nation trade deal because it doesn't go far enough on labor and environmental issues. That came after saying last month during a debate in Grand Junction that the deal would be good for Colorado farmers and ranchers. Bennet, however, joined with Republicans in June to give President Obama more authority to negotiate such deals.
Bipartisanship a pose?
Bennet's bipartisanship isn't what he makes it out to be, say opponents. He has been in lockstep with Washington's most liberal ideas, say Republicans.
Bennet supported Obamacare, which he now says has problems that can be fixed. He supports the Iran nuclear deal, because thwarting the immediate weapons capability was critically important, even though Bennet says he doesn't trust the Iranians.
"Michael Bennet spends a lot of time talking about bipartisanship, but on every major issue that has came before the Senate over the last six years Bennet has sided nearly universally with President Obama and the Democrats," Colorado GOP Chairman Steve House said.
Though Glenn has struggled to raise money and consistently trailed far behind the incumbent in polls, it's the Bennet name recognition not the Bennet results that have provided that gap, House added.
"The state of the Senate race is far more a reflection of Darryl Glenn's name identification than any fundamental rejection of his candidacy," he said. "Glenn had an outstanding fundraising quarter raising $2.8 million, far outpacing Michael Bennet. We fully anticipate the Glenn campaign will pick up momentum as more voters become acquainted with Darryl and his humble authentic message."
Groomed for compromise
The unlikely senator has had an unlikely career, one built on listening and learning.
He arrived in Colorado with a Washington pedigree in 1997 when his soon-to-be wife, Susan, landed a job in Denver as a lawyer for the Sierra Club. He walked away from a job as a lawyer in Bill Clinton's Justice Department. The Bennet name meant nothing in Colorado but carried weight in Washington, dating back to when his grandfather was an economic adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt. His father held high positions in the Carter and Clinton administrations and was an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Barely in his 30s, Bennet sent two letters West asking for jobs for which he had no experience - one to a rising business leader and brewpub operator named John Hickenlooper and another to Colorado businessman Phil Anschutz, who owns The Gazette. He wound up with Anschutz, managing investments, though Anschutz sent him to night school to learn to read a balance sheet.
Yet, before he left to pursue public service in Denver city government and then reforming the city's lagging school system, Bennet made himself, and Anschutz, millions of dollars building one of the world's largest movie cinema chains, Regal Entertainment.
A rare politician
Hickenlooper last week recalled receiving a letter from Bennet seeking a job 20 years ago. They had graduated 13 years apart at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Bennet went on to be editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Review.
The future Denver mayor and Colorado governor didn't need a "super lawyer" for his bar and restaurant, so Hickenlooper never got around to replying.
Later they met at a mutual friend's dinner party and struck up a friendship that helped shape both men's lives in public office.
When Hickenlooper decided to run for mayor in the fall of 2002, Bennett and his wife were two of the first to donate to his campaign, and it was Bennet who had the most practical advice on public policies, the now-governor said.
Hickenlooper asked Bennet to be his chief of staff.
It was Hickenlooper who recommended that Bennet become Denver's school superintendent in 2005, leading a turnaround in student achievement. When Colorado political fixture Ken Salazar resigned from the Senate in 2009 to join President Obama's Cabinet, Bennet rose above a pack of well-connected Colorado Democrats to land the appointment.
"He's as close to a nonpartisan Democrat as you'll find," Hickenlooper said. "He's obviously a good Democrat in the same sense Cory Gardner is a good Republican. We've got two of the best young senators in America right now. That's a huge advantage."
Cole Finegan, the city attorney in the Hickenlooper, admired Bennet's composure during tense labor negotiations with the city's police and fire departments, at a time when the city was toughening the disciplinary code for officers.
"He's often the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't need to tell anybody he's the smartest guy in the room. That's rare in a politician.
"See Trump, Donald."