John Hickenlooper
Credit: Photograph by Edward Keating
Hick's think-out-loud style has become less of an asset as he moves into the infighting of state and national politics. He got in trouble with Obama for saying the president was "not fluent in business." As we rode over to the press event announcing that United Airlines would be flying nonstop from Denver to Panama City, Hick mused, "I guess we shouldn't mention those Denver companies' rebuilding the canal with a $1 billion cost overrun." His staff in the car looked at their shoes. On another occasion, Hick talked about flying in a helicopter to visit flood victims just weeks after his hip surgery. He couldn't resist adding, "A governor on crutches helping flood victims isn't a bad shot for television."

After Aurora, Hick suggested on Meet the Press that the real issue with the mass shooting was mental illness­ – a longtime policy concern for Hick from his mayoral days – and not the size of magazines that a murderer could buy for his semiautomatic rifle. Hick eventually changed his mind and passed legislation limiting magazines to 15 bullets. He says the switch was about evolving on a tough issue based on more information, but his detractors saw it as dithering. Hick didn't help himself in June when he met with sheriffs opposed to the ban and seemed to second-guess his support for the bill, joking, "How many apologies do you want? What the fuck?" The quip went over better in the room than with his detractors, who saw a backslide.

Law-and-order issues have dogged him his entire administration. Hick ran for governor in 2010 as a pro–death penalty candidate, but when the Nathan Dunlap case came before him, it caused the greatest crisis of his administration. There was no question that 19-year-old Dunlap had murdered four employees at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's in 1993. But when it came time for Hick to sign the death warrant, he couldn't do it. He learned about Dunlap's serious mental issues­ – a factor his sentencing jury didn't know about – and heard White tell him she would resign if Dunlap were put to death. Hick called his friends for advice. One of them asked him a simple question: "Will you be able to sleep if you put this man to death?"

The answer was no. But rather than commute Dunlap's sentence, Hick gave him a stay of execution for the length of his administration, which, if he is reelected, runs until January 8, 2019. Critics saw it as political cowardice, just punting the problem to the next guy. Hick claims he was giving Coloradans time to think about where they want to stand on the death penalty.

Hick can cite numbers on the cost in millions spent to put a man to death and society's changing views on the punishment. But he says he was always an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth politician until he met with then Denver archbishop Charles Chaput for more than an hour as the Dunlap case sat on his desk. He left the meeting a changed man, which is either brave or Chauncey Gardiner–esque naive.

"I was so clueless," says Hick. "It has no deterrent value. It depends on which DA you get, in what county you committed your heinous crime." His eyes widen, and he thrusts his hands apart. "I never realized that there is no eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth anywhere in the New Testament." His voice drops a bit. "We didn't go to church a lot after my dad died."