CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Gov. John Hickenlooper takes the stage Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention, he will have formally moved from a carefully crafted apolitical persona to a place where he is stumping for a Democratic president.
Hickenlooper is usually among the greeters on the tarmac when President Barack Obama lands in Colorado — seven times this year alone — and the two have shared phone conversations about Colorado's various tragedies, from the drought to the wildfires to the Aurora shooting.
But Hickenlooper has not often publicly praised Obama in his battle against Mitt Romney. He hasn't been seen mingling at many of his Colorado fundraisers and, in his gubernatorial bid in the Republican sweep year of 2010, was even viewed as distancing himself from the president.
Times have changed.
Last week, Hickenlooper introduced Obama before remarks at Colorado State University saying, "The choice could not be clearer, the consequences could not be bigger."
"Obama has more emotional depth than anyone I have ever known and we are lucky to have him as our president," Hickenlooper said.
That it took him this long, when other Democratic governors have been working towards Obama's re-election efforts for years, shows both Hickenlooper's ambitions within the Democratic party and the Obama campaign's need for the man called the most popular governor in America.
Hickenlooper said Tuesday he has always supported the president, but he has renewed appreciation after Colorado's tumultuous year.
Farmers faced disastrous drought conditions, the state battled multiple wildfires at the same time and a man opened fire in an Aurora movie theater killing 12 people and leaving dozens more injured.
Obama visited Colorado Springs to see damage left by the Waldo Canyon fire. He also visited Aurora shooting victims at University of Colorado Hospital.
Hickenlooper was with the president both times and called the visit — particularly the one to Colorado Springs — helpful to the relationship.
"I spent a great deal of time with him, we drove around Colorado Springs for three hours," Hickenlooper said. "He was completely candid."
In the car, they talked about environmental regulations, banking reform and Obamacare, the president's signature health care law.
"I was with a Republican mayor from Colorado Springs and whatever questions we asked, the president was candid and transparent," Hickenlooper said.
The governor also said, given the scopes of the tragedies, Obama's emotional capacity was "breathtaking."
Hickenlooper said he wasn't worried that his highly public prime-time endorsement Wednesday would be corrosive to his Republican support in Colorado.
Several prominent business leaders, including Liberty Media Corporation CEO Greg Maffei and Larry Mizel, CEO of MDC Holdings, Inc., supported Hickenlooper's gubernatorial bid two years ago.
"I have as many friends who are Republicans as I do Democrats," Hickenlooper said. "Republicans worked hard to get me elected."
Mary Smith, former Denver GOP chair, said she knew Hickenlooper was a Democrat when she supported him two years ago.
"I like John and it doesn't surprise me he's speaking at the DNC," she said. "It would be surprising if he came out with a ringing endorsement of all of Obama's policies."
Rep. Frank McNulty, Colorado's GOP House speaker, said Hickenlooper's premium speaking time slot shows that the governor has higher ambitions.
"If he expects to be successful in the Democratic party then he's going to have to bow to the party demands," he said.
But Hickenlooper — famous for parsing words and not taking partisan jabs — was still Hickenlooper Tuesday even as he canvassed the very partisan Charlotte, N.C.
"You're not going to see me make any negative statements against Gov. Romney," he said. "You're not going to see me attack Republicans ... I'm not going to do that."