By Stephanie Simon
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stood in front of a slew of cameras hours after the carnage in an Aurora movie theater and struggled to find words:
"The victims of this senseless act of ... of violence ..."
Hickenlooper stumbled, then gave up. "Again, there just aren't words," he said.
The governor's remarks, at a news conference last Friday, sounded even more unfocused by comparison with the crisp report delivered minutes later by Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates.
But his halting performance on the national stage did not seem to bother the governor's constituents. On the contrary, the geeky Democrat with the funny name has earned high marks from Colorado voters precisely because he's unpolished, unscripted and slightly awkward - all of which makes him seem authentic and, especially in recent days, genuinely empathetic, political analysts say.
Hickenlooper consistently earns favorability ratings of 60 percent or higher in a state where the electorate is roughly divided in thirds among Democrats, Republicans and independents. That makes him one of the most broadly popular governors in the country; he's sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
Watching him at the news conference, wearing rumpled shirt sleeves and fumbling to find the right tone, outsiders might have said "He was not as professional as he could be," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver. "But that is pure Hickenlooper. He is in no way artificial or practiced."
It's been a rough summer for the first-term governor.
Wildfires raging in the state last month claimed two lives and destroyed more than 600 homes. A searing drought has taken a toll on agriculture and tourism, with some rivers too low to lure whitewater rafters. The state has been so dry that the governor banned private fireworks over the 4th of July.
Then came the massacre in the movie theater.
"It really has been a long summer," Hickenlooper said in an interview with Reuters.
The 60-year-old governor has spent much of the past few days visiting victims in hospitals and comforting mourners at prayer vigils.
At a vigil Sunday night, Hickenlooper read aloud the names of the 12 people killed, pausing after each so mourners could call out, "We will remember you." Then the governor told the emotional crowd that he refused to speak the name of the suspected gunman, James Holmes. "In my house we're just going to call him Suspect A," he said, drawing cheers.
He played much the same role, consoling and rallying his constituents, during the wildfires. "He's a father-figure-in-chief," said John Brackney, a Republican who runs the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce.
But Hickenlooper is also a politician - and one who has mastered the delicate dance required of Democrats who hope to win statewide elections in the Mountain West region.
During a round of national TV interviews after the shooting, he was pressed on the issue of gun control. His answer: Tougher gun laws would not have averted the tragedy. "If there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy's going to find something" else to create mayhem, he told CNN.
Hickenlooper reiterated that perspective in the interview with Reuters but said he had not meant to close the door on discussing gun control. "I welcome the debate," he said, "but I think it's inappropriate when people are still so deeply mourning."
Hickenlooper said he viewed the tragedy in Aurora as a "mental illness issue," but said he also invited conversation about whether "video games, violent movies and also the availability of lethal tools when people are struck by this great madness" might contribute to mass shootings.
Colorado, like most of the Mountain West, has a strong gun culture, with not only hunters and ranchers carrying them around but also many city dwellers and suburbanites owning firearms.
In the past, Hickenlooper has urged better enforcement of existing gun laws rather than new restrictions. That calibrated stance has enabled him to build an image as a moderate.
The Democrat is ardently liberal on some issues; this spring, he called the Colorado legislature into special session in an unsuccessful drive to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. As mayor of Denver for eight years, Hickenlooper pushed through tax hikes to build mass transit and fight homelessness.
Yet he has also cultivated a reputation as a pro-business pragmatist. Earlier this year, he recorded a radio ad for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association touting the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracking - to the fury of the environmental lobby. He has launched an aggressive effort to repeal hundreds of state regulations that he said burdened businesses.
'NOT PREDICTABLY LIBERAL'
And when the state was facing a huge budget shortfall, he did not hesitate to propose huge cuts to education and parks - a move usually avoided by Democrats.
"The governor sometimes goes out of his way to demonstrate that he's not predictably liberal," said Eric Anderson, a principal at the Denver communications firm SE2.
Critics say the governor is far more liberal than he seems, especially when it comes to backing tax hikes.
"He has carved out a little niche as being a quirky, pro-business Democrat but a lot of that is manufactured," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Golden, Colorado.
Yet even political opponents tend to agree that Hickenlooper is disarmingly likeable.
The governor refuses to wear ties, except on the most solemn occasions, and seems averse to good haircuts. His wife, author Helen Thorpe, has affectionately called him "a dork."
Hickenlooper started his career as a geologist for an oil company but lost the job in the mid-1980s when the industry crashed. At a loss, he decided to open Colorado's first brew pub in what was then a rundown warehouse district in Denver. The pub was a hit, the neighborhood became trendy and Hickenlooper made millions.
As a politician, he cultivates an image as an affable goofball.
His first TV ad in his 2010 campaign for governor featured him stepping into a shower fully clothed. In another spot, he mocked his city-slicker image, suiting up in rodeo gear because "everybody tells me I have to ride a horse in a political ad."
Hickenlooper never wears the American flag lapel pin that's become de rigeur for politicians. A big music fan, he is known to pop into bars and clubs to hear the latest in punk or rock.
As he attempts to lead his state through the trauma of the Aurora shootings, Hickenlooper has returned again and again to the "remarkable" response by police, physicians and other first responders. He'd like people to remember not just the pain, he says, but that heroism that he calls it "the miracle in Aurora."
That, too, is vintage Hickenlooper, friends and pundits say. He relentlessly focuses on the positive - a lesson he says he learned from his mother. "No matter how tough we thought we had it," Hickenlooper said, "she told us we had an obligation to seek joy."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver Editing by Jonathan Weber and Philip Barbara)