With three days left before the election season recess, U.S. senators who are up this year, like Washington State's Maria Cantwell, wanted to wrap up business, get back home where they were being trashed by challengers, and devote themselves to campaigning in the final five-week run-up to November 7.

In fact, Cantwell, Washington State's freshman senator, facing a charismatic and wealthy Republican challenger, was getting a 72-hour head start on her campaigning right there in the other Washington on Wednesday, September 27. And with good reason: The GOP had snared her in a trap. Cantwell was eager to lash back.

Patty Murray, Cantwell's Democratic colleague and our state's senior senator, held a press conference in her regal senate offices on September 27 to talk about Washington State's sales-tax deduction—something Cantwell wanted a stand-alone vote on before the recess. After a brief introduction to the issue, Murray turned the microphone over to Cantwell, saying "[She is a] leader in the battle who has brought this issue up and dogged it. She got it passed as a temporary provision [for 2004 and 2005] and has raised it time and time again... I'm going to let her speak to it."

Cantwell flashed a smile at the TV cameras. Then, in front of two huge enlargements of IRS Form 1040 that her staff had set up as a backdrop, she laid into the Republican leadership for screwing over Washington State's working families. "If we don't step up now," she said, "the sales-tax deduction we depend on will expire, shortchanging Washington taxpayers and our state's economy."

Last month, the GOP had bundled Cantwell's sales-tax deduction into a single bill with an estate-tax reduction and wage cuts for tipped workers like waiters. That legislation went down after a pitched battle with Cantwell voting against it.

It was a GOP trap. Listen to the GOP leadership quoted in the Washington D.C. paper the Hill last month, moments before the bill went down: "Even if they do not win enactment of the bill, [Republicans] said they would be able to blame Democrats.... 'There's no risk. It's all reward,' said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-KY). 'It's a very compelling political package.'"

After the vote and on cue, Cantwell's Republican opponent, former Safeco CEO Mike McGavick, pounced. He released a $50,000 statewide radio barrage attacking Cantwell's vote against the bill.

"I think that's the most disappointing and surprising thing," McGavick intoned in his compelling, high-pitched twang. "I really thought that Senator Cantwell would vote to keep this deduction in place. It's so critical to Washington families."

Never mind that Cantwell was the one who passed the original sales-tax deduction in the first place, saving Washington families $550 annually. McGavick was just following GOP orders.

At the September 27 press conference, Cantwell, who may as well have been addressing McGavick directly, repeated her call for a stand-alone vote on extending the sales-tax deduction. "Trying to hold up good bipartisan legislation by attaching bad legislation to it is the wrong thing to do," Cantwell said "The fact that [Republican Majority Leader] Senator Frist knows this would benefit the residents of his state, we would expect that he would want to pass this... before we adjourn."

There was no chance, however, of passing the deduction before the Senate adjourned. Cantwell's staff acknowledged to me that nothing was going to happen in the next three days. So why take out time in the last-minute rush before recess to hold a press conference?

Afterward, I asked Cantwell about McGavick's ad blitz. "For someone who talks about civility," Cantwell laughed, referring to McGavick's campaign-trail rhetoric about earnest debate, "to put up a misleading ad that's not accurate about the sales tax... that's just somebody who's behind in the election." When I asked point-blank if the show in Murray's office was a response to McGavick, Cantwell was coy. "This is a response to the IRS," she said, handing me an underlined memo from the Finance Committee. (The memo stated that if the legislation didn't pass now, before the recess, Washingtonians were out of luck.) She left me standing there with the memo, a magenta sticky note pasted to the relevant paragraph, and took off with a staffer down one of the Capitol Building's comically immense hallways, where another GOP trap—one that the Republicans hoped would define the upcoming election—waited in the wings.

* * *

If Cantwell wins in November—current polling has her up by as many as 10 points—it will be sweet revenge for the freshman senator.

In 1994, after a one-term stint as a young (35), hardworking, independent-minded congresswoman from Washington State's first congressional district (North Seattle, Edmonds), Cantwell was booted by the forces of history when Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution swept the Democrats out of power. History is on Cantwell's side this time. 2006 appears to be shaping up as the year for big Democratic gains.

Cantwell was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Indianapolis. She was president of the Indianapolis chapter of the active Catholic Youth Organization as a teen, and was the only one of the five children in her family to go to college (Miami University in Ohio). Neither of her parents had gone to college. Her dad—a union mason, Democratic county commissioner, city council member, and brash populist who made his kids take the day off from school on election days to get out the vote—only had a GED.

Her father's homespun, blue-collar politics obviously rubbed off on Cantwell. In 1984 she joined liberal Senator Alan Cranston's presidential primary campaign. She landed in Seattle, heading up Cranston's Pacific Northwest effort. She quickly emerged as a political player, teaming up with Ron Dotzauer, a Democratic consultant. Together they founded the firm Northwest Strategies. (Cantwell also had a serious romantic relationship with Dotzauer.) In 1986, she stopped consulting and decided to run herself, winning a seat in the state legislature where she impressed Democratic House Speaker Joe King so much he quickly made her a committee chair. "She was the best legislator I'd seen," King remembers. "She was the best we had.... You couldn't say no to her. She'd just come into your office and almost poke her finger in your chest." (At the time, Dotzauer tells me today, Bud Coffey, Boeing's legendary lobbyist in Olympia, took Dotzauer aside and predicted his girlfriend was going to be the first female speaker of the house.) As head of the Economic Development Committee, Cantwell became the driving force behind 1990's Growth Management Act.

In 1992 she jumped to the U.S. Congress, winning an open seat and becoming the first Democrat to win the suburban district in 40 years. She beat anti-choice Republican State Senator Gary Nelson, winning 57 percent of the vote. Two years later—after emerging as a techie and champion of computer privacy rights—she was booted in the indiscriminate Gingrich coup.

She was "devastated" by her loss in 1994, according to Joe King. However, losing turned out to be a lucky twist. Her friend Rob Glaser, founder of an internet startup called Real Networks, offered her a job as a corporate VP, and she made millions. (She would eventually dump $10 million of her own money into her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign.)

In late 1999, Washington State Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt did polling to see who had the best shot of unseating longtime GOP Senate incumbent Slade Gorton. Attorney General Christine Gregoire's name came out on top. But Gregoire's kids were still in high school, and she didn't want to run. Cantwell's name was next on the list.

Berendt asked Democratic staffer Christian Sinderman to talk Cantwell into running. After several phone calls, Sinderman finally got a meeting with her. They met at a Starbucks at First Avenue and Wall Street in November of '99. Cantwell, still hurt by voters' rejection in 1994, and comfortably installed at Real Networks, wasn't sure if she wanted to run. But then, Sinderman recalls, "She just talked for three hours straight and laid out this program." If she were to run, Cantwell told Sinderman, she would have three goals: campaign-finance reform, environmental protection, and engaging young people in politics. Cantwell had met a lot of the under-30 crowd at Real Networks and was surprised by how disaffected they were.

By the end of their coffee date, Cantwell seemed to have talked herself into running. Sinderman left the party and went to work for Cantwell—the two of them jammed into his little red Honda Civic and beat a trail around the state during her 2000 campaign.

Cantwell eked out a win after a mandatory recount by just .09 percent (2,229 votes). It was a nail-biter, but ultimately a cheerful Democratic footnote in a year when the more infamous cliffhanger handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.

* * *

The day after Cantwell's press conference in Murray's office, the GOP was in the process of springing another, more potent trap on the Democrats.

On Thursday morning, September 28, now just one day before the session went into recess, the GOP was daring Democrats to vote "no" on its detainees bill—a bill that would allow the president to defy the Geneva Convention if he saw fit.

The Republicans were once again using 9/11 and the war on terror as a fear-mongering election-season ploy: After the House passed the bill, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) laid out the GOP's strategy in the Washington Post: "The Democrats' irrational opposition to strong national security policies should be of great concern to the American people. To always have reasons why you just can't vote yes, I think speaks volumes when it comes to which party is better able and more willing to take on the terrorists."

The symbolic flash point of the bill was the right of habeas corpus—a fancy term that basically means people have the right to challenge their arrest and detainment. The GOP bill denied detainees their habeas corpus rights. The writ of habeas corpus, which dates back to 14th-century England, is a right specifically called out in the U.S. Constitution. When Abraham Lincoln infamously tried to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland during the Civil War, Maryland's courts overturned his rule.

On Thursday morning, as this issue was coming to a head, Cantwell was hosting another campaign-style event on-stage in the high-ceilinged Lyndon Johnson room on the second floor of the Capitol. Flanked by a beefy cop in uniform and a nerdy youth-services social worker who'd flown in for the event, Cantwell was talking about her fight against meth. Suddenly, Cantwell's legislative director rushed up to the stage to tell her there was a floor vote on an amendment to the detainees bill reinstating habeas corpus. Cantwell looked a little stunned. I followed her out into the hall and asked her how she was going to vote. Her press staffer ran interference, saying Cantwell had to get to the vote now, and I could watch from the press gallery.

It wasn't at all clear to me how Cantwell was going to vote.

To the chagrin of her base, Cantwell has been hawkish when it comes to the war on terror, voting for the USA PATRIOT Act—twice—and, infamously, voting for the war in Iraq. I ran up to the press gallery to watch. The vote had been called at 11:45 a.m., it was now noon, and the clerk was taking votes as the senators came streaming in from all over the Capitol—massing in small groups around the rostrum, conferring with one another like high-schoolers in the cafeteria before heading to the clerk to say yea or nay. Immediately to the left of the rostrum John McCain and Virginia Republican John Warner were double-teaming Ben Nelson (the conservative Nebraska Dem who would end up casting a key nay vote for the Republicans). Clinton, Obama, and Kerry hovered by themselves. A "yes" vote would restore habeas corpus, a "no" vote would kill it. In random bursts, senators split from their cliques, leaned in to signal the clerk with a nod of the head or a thumb up or down. Cantwell was huddled on the Senate floor with Patty Murray, Joe Biden, and Jay Rockefeller. She signaled the clerk: "Yes."

After her vote, Cantwell walked down the aisle, paused to give Biden a casual high five, and then rested on Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith's desk in the back row to chat with him. Smith was one of four Republicans who voted yes.

The vote, however, was 51-48 against habeas corpus.

"We have to stand up for the rule of law," Cantwell told me in her office after the vote. "That's what's important in the United States." Fortuitously, I had scheduled a sit-down interview with Cantwell for 12:30 p.m. that day, and was lucky enough to speak with her at length just moments after the big vote.

"The fact that people could be detained and not have access to counsel to know why they were detained?" Cantwell started rhetorically. "I've been to Guantánamo Bay and I saw the circumstances there. Certainly there are people who have been there for several years without being charged. Now to offer rewards for people turning in other individuals," she says referring to the Fed's Rewards for Justice program, which pays up to $25 million for tips on terrorists, "you can imagine, you know, 'Oh, my neighbor is a terrorist' and the next thing you know, you're in Guantánamo Bay. You need to have a process and habeas corpus to say, 'Hey, why am I being detained?'"

I asked Cantwell how she would vote on the detainees bill itself later in the day. She was evasive, which didn't seem like a good sign. Cantwell participated in a filibuster against the PATRIOT Act earlier this year before voting for it. But that evening—after voting for three other failed Democratic amendments—one that would have required quarterly reports from the CIA on detainee interrogations; one that mandated a five-year sunset for the law; and one that would have specifically forbidden the U.S. from using torture methods that are outlawed by the Geneva Conventions—Cantwell voted no on the bill.

The bill passed 65-34, which highlights the conviction of Cantwell's "no" vote. All the losing amendments had netted votes in the high forties (53-46, 52-47, 53-46, respectively), meaning the votes had split along party lines, with Republicans voting against the amendments and Democrats voting in favor. In the final tally on the detainees bill, Republicans had managed to peel off 12 Democrats. But not Cantwell.

The trap had been set. McGavick's inevitable attack on Cantwell materialized that afternoon. McGavick's pour-and-stir press release was titled "McGavick Disappointed by Cantwell Vote Against Military Commission Act of 2006." Reading from the GOP recipe, McGavick stated, "This legislation is a necessary piece of the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism. Our security depends on our military and intelligence communities possessing intelligence-gathering tools... to try our terrorist enemies."

Cantwell doesn't think McGavick's GOP ploy will hurt her.

"The last election cycle they tried politicking on the war on terror with Senator Murray, and I think it backfired," she says. "The people in Washington State know that we have to be vigilant, but we also have to stand up for the rule of law."

We'll find out in November if Cantwell is reading the voters correctly or if the GOP trap and McGavick's pre-fab follow-up attack will succeed.

* * *

Christian Sinderman now boasts that the woman he talked into running for Senate—or the woman he watched talk herself into running for Senate—has delivered on her program.

Campaign finance reform? Cantwell (who doesn't take PAC money) was a prime mover on the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. The environment? Cantwell's a superstar. She famously led a filibuster to stop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She amended Bush's energy bill so it wouldn't shield manufacturers of MTBE (Methyl tert-butyl ether) pollutants from lawsuits. And she passed legislation protecting the Puget Sound from more oil-tanker traffic.

The environment isn't the only place where the freshman senator has had an outsized impact. She passed a privacy bill to protect consumers, so that if your identity is stolen you have the right to have your credit corrected to preserve your good standing. She passed legislation preventing bankruptcy courts from forcing Snohomish County to fork over money to Enron. She passed legislation to expand a rural health-care program, the National Health Services Corps, by 70 percent. And she's managed to do all of this in a Republican-controlled Senate. "One person said to me," Cantwell says smiling, "'How is it that you as a freshman senator in a Republican-controlled administration can get that done?'"

Unfortunately, policy successes aren't all there is to being a successful politician. As the GOP has shown, charm and media messaging are both key to winning elections and staying in power. The rap on Cantwell is that she's lacking in both departments.

"Cold." "Socially awkward." "Aloof." These are the words you hear about Cantwell from former staffers, people who've sat down to interview for jobs with her, and even from her friends. "She's not one of those politicians who puts their arm around you," Dotzauer says.

"There were lots of long pauses," says one party activist who recently interviewed one-on-one for a job with Cantwell. "She turns her head away from you and just looks off. I wanted to work for her. I want her to win. But everyone I talked to before the interview said the same thing: 'She's really difficult to work for.' And I could see that during the interview. She spooked me."

Even her early advocate Joe King, now a political consultant in Ellensburg, says Cantwell's manner can throw people. He remembers being in D.C. last year lobbying with his client, the Community Health Network of Washington. He took six or seven health-clinic CEOs to see Cantwell and "she just bore down into the issue and was very direct and asked tough questions, without any of the pleasant small talk. Anyone else would have said, 'Hey, great to meet you; glad you're here,' but she just drilled in."

King says that when the group left her office, his clients turned to him and said: "What's the deal? Didn't she like us?"

"The irony," King points out, "is that she was already supporting our cause: more funding for children's Medicaid."

Nor is Cantwell fond of the press. According to one of Cantwell's former staffers (yet another one who wanted to remain anonymous—as just about everyone who talks candidly about the senator wishes to do), whenever Cantwell would find him gabbing on his cell phone with a reporter, she would pace impatiently back and forth until she got his attention. Then she'd tilt her head back, look up to the sky, and throw her hands up in the air. "The press is not paid to write good things about politicians," she'd tell him.

* * *

So I was surprised to be sitting in one of the giant, comfy brown leather chairs in Cantwell's office across the table from the "aloof" senator just after her habeas corpus vote and a few hours before the final vote on the detainees bill—with my tape recorder rolling.

First we talked about Iraq, an issue that upended a few Cantwell campaign events earlier this year when she refused to reassess her 2002 vote authorizing the war or condemn the war itself. A crew of Democratic activists even staged a sit-in at her office last May. Recently, however, after her vote for the Levin Amendment, which called for a timeline on withdrawal from Iraq, she's been demanding that the troops start coming home. The Levin Amendment, introduced by Michigan Democratic senator Carl Levin, is certainly squishy [see "Base Hit: Senator Maria Cantwell Has Finally Found an Antiwar Message, but What Is She Saying... Exactly?" Josh Feit, Aug 24], but her changed tone has pleased her base. She won last month's primary, against antiwar challenger Hong Tran (and three other oddballs), with 91 percent.

Here's what she told me about Iraq. On her original vote: "The debate for us was whether the U.S. Senate should give the president the authority to go to the UN and say, 'We need to do something about Saddam Hussein and the non-compliance'... and did I want the UN to get serious about Saddam Hussein violating that cease-fire agreement for 10 years? I wanted to send a strong message from the U.S. to the UN that we needed to get serious in dealing with this issue." On her position now: "[Bush] is just saying we're going to stay there as long as it takes. Well, after 400 billion dollars and the number of people that have been deployed and the length of the deployment, the American people deserve to have a better plan than to say we're going to just stay there indefinitely. We want accountability from this administration on whether the Iraqis stand up, take over their own government, and start to take charge of their own security; the Levin Amendment says the administration has to meet milestones [to that end.]"

Toward the end of the interview, I changed the tone. I told Cantwell that I know more about her challenger, Mike McGavick, who has only been in the public eye for a few months, than I do about her. McGavick, for better or worse, has opened up about his regrets, his personal life, and his personal failings. What are her regrets? In an era of personality politics, I wanted a sense of Cantwell's story. Tellingly, she turned the conversation to policy.

"I certainly have personal regrets," she began, "but there are too many important issues to be talking about. This is a race for the United States Senate. I'm happy to tell people why I feel passionately that college education should be more affordable, because I was the first person in my family to go to college. And communicating on those issues, I think, is critically important because there are really people in our state who are struggling... whether it's without access to health care, or [with the] high cost of energy, or whether they're going to get to go to school."

I did get a few personal tidbits, though: She likes Blondie, she's a karaoke fanatic—her favorite spot is Bush Gardens in the International District where she's celebrated a few birthdays and once did a show-stopping version of Neil Diamond's "America." Cantwell's also a sports nut: a dry-erase board next to the door in her office announces the time of the next Mariners game and the score of the last.

Before long, though, our conversation returned to wonk land. Somehow, while I was trying to get a sense of Cantwell as a person, we wound up talking about price fixing by pharmaceutical benefit-management companies.

I started to realize that this is the personal side of Cantwell.

People who work for Cantwell say the only times she gets excited—besides when she's talking about the Mariners or Huskies or Seahawks—is when she's drilling down into policy, asking them to check footnotes about bond yields in the latest book she's reading on economic policy, for example. "If you want to get Maria excited," said Sinderman, "talk to her about workforce training."

Here's the thing about Cantwell, though. Unlike the pointy-headed focus of loser Democrats like John Kerry, Cantwell is a populist with populist cred (the Mariners vs. windsurfing, for example). Again, she was the first person in her family to go to college and was far from being born into wealth. When she struck it rich at Real Networks, the first thing she reportedly did was pay off all her siblings' mortgages and buy a house for herself and her mom in a nice part of Edmonds.

Edmonds.

"It really strikes me," Cantwell said, "whether it's the prescription-drug bill where there's no competition on price, or contracts in Iraq without bidding, or this letting Enron go ahead and manipulate the market—are they [Bush and Rove] really good capitalists about competition, or are they about a concentration of power and monopoly? We need to stand up for protections against concentration of power. Does that come from my roots and my family? It sure does."

* * *

When I first met Senator Cantwell, the day after Bush won in 2004, we talked about what the Democrats needed to do to start winning again. Cantwell zoomed in on a populist message. She was frustrated that the Republicans had convinced the working class that the GOP represents working-class interests when actually, she said, Bush's agenda is harmful to the lumpenproletariat.

As Exhibit A, she cited Bush's push for energy deregulation and the effect it had on consumers. She reiterated that message to me last week: "This guy [Bush] is no Teddy Roosevelt. He's giving the oil industry $13 billion every five years when they don't need a penny of it. Their profits have hit the roof," she says. "At a similar point in time in our history, when we had that concentration of power, there was a president who stood up. Who's doing that now?" Cantwell points out that she was the senator who demanded that oil executives, accused of price gouging, should raise their right hands and speak under oath. "We can't even get oil-company executives to stand up and raise their right hands at a hearing," she grouses about GOP rule.

The crafty GOP can set all the traps it wants for Cantwell, but her populist leanings seem to be tracking. A recent Survey USA poll of the demographic that most closely mirrors the white working class—voters who attended but didn't graduate college—shows that Cantwell leads McGavick 52 to 37 percent. In 2000, Cantwell lost in that category to Slade Gorton 56 to 41 percent.

"When you're standing up for those people," she says citing her father's populist imprint on her own work, "that's really what motivates me. I look at the job from that perspective. And when I think some segment of Washington State is not getting a just deal, then I've got to stand up."