It could have been the night that derailed John Hickenlooper’s nascent presidential run.
Just weeks after the former Colorado governor added his name to the rapidly expanding pool of Democrats seeking the 2020 nomination, flirting with single digits in the polls, Hickenlooper took center stage for an hour at a CNN Town Hall, where he had a chance to introduce himself to the nation.
For most of the hour, viewers saw what Colorado observers have come to know — the thoughtful, self-deprecating former barkeep with a predilection for bringing antagonists together and an aversion to making enemies.
And then they were treated to Hickenlooper's equally familiar fondness for going off script with an off-the-cuff quip and his penchant to digress, turning a sound bite into a sprawling confession fit to come back to bite him.
In the space of a few minutes, Hickenlooper delivered what was considered a tone-deaf response to a question about putting a woman on the presidential ticket, and followed that up with a head-scratching saga about the time he took his mom to a pornographic movie.
"Of course," Hickenlooper responded when asked whether he would pick a woman as a running mate, and then continued: "How come we’re not asking, more often, the women, 'Would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?'”
Across the country, the Twitterati slapped its collective forehead, and then slapped it again during the next exchange.
At the prompting of CNN's Dana Bash, the town hall's moderator, Hickenlooper went into great detail about accompanying his mom to a screening of the notorious X-rated flick "Deep Throat" when he was home from college in the early 1970s.
After the town hall, Hickenlooper and an aide hastened to clarify his answer about whether a woman belongs on the ticket, saying it was meant to flip the assumption behind the question. “Too often media discounts the chance of a woman winning,” he told a CNN reporter, adding: “People can take it out of context.”
The next day, some national news sites led with that awkwardly phrased remark, while others opted for a more colorful summation.
"John Hickenlooper held a really weird town hall where he talked about watching porn with his mom," the Vice News headline read.
This came on the heels of a kerfuffle kicked up by Hickenlooper when the one-time restaurant magnate declined to call himself a capitalist — labels can be divisive, he insisted — on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” political talk show, leading to a discussion among pundits that lasted for days.
Back home, Coloradans recalled a well-worn Hickenlooper adage.
“As I say to my wife all the time, there’s always 5 feet between me and disaster. That’s the distance between my foot and my mouth,” Hickenlooper said in 2012, following a slip of the tongue that drew national attention.
Introducing Joe Garcia, his lieutenant governor, to a group of elementary school children, Hickenlooper had fumbled over the phrasing, first calling Garcia a "rising sex star" and then correcting himself: "I mean symbol, not star."
Later, he explained, he'd intended to call his second-in-command a rock star but got tongue-tied.
That could be why long-time observers of Hickenlooper’s political trajectory in Colorado chuckled at his town hall performance — but barely blinked.
They’ve seen it before.
It's hard to separate his gaffes — common enough to be dubbed "Hickenbloopers" — from the rest of Hickenlooper's image as an unpolished, accidental politician who famously wondered whether he would have to break down and buy a suit after winning election as mayor of Denver.
In a 2011 interview with New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, Hickenlooper made a memorable crack about his wealth: "Trust me, I'm small rich, not big rich."
At the time, a top communications strategist for another Colorado Democrat marveled at Hickenlooper's ability to say something that could cause endless headaches for any other politician and emerge unscathed, leaving wry grins instead of controversy in his wake.
Still, it's also a truism in politics that the kind of developments that light up Twitter and set pundits’ tongues a-wagging only rarely cast much of a shadow in the long run — and it's the politician who can keep from getting distracted or overwhelmed by the day's ups and downs who goes the distance.
It's a trait common to the last two Democratic presidential nominees who went on to win the White House.
Barack Obama didn't earn the nickname "No Drama Obama" for nothing, possessing an almost uncanny serenity and ability to focus amid the chaos of a presidential campaign.
And during his campaigns and presidency, Bill Clinton gained a reputation for maintaining his cool while navigating from one "bimbo eruption" to the next, including facing down impeachment and emerging with his popularity intact.
It's unlikely that Hickenlooper's 2020 campaign will be wrecked by a faux pas or even the kind of blunder that could dash another candidate's trajectory.
Days after the CNN town hall, Hickenlooper spent a couple days on a campaign swing through New Hampshire, where it doesn't sound like any of the voters he met with wanted to talk about the town hall topics that commanded attention in the press or on social media.
Instead, voters wanted to hear what he had to say about health care, energy policy and his record as governor.
In a stump speech, Hickenlooper described his approach, invoking Seabiscuit, the unimpressive racehorse who surprised everyone and captivated the nation by becoming a champion in the 1930s
“Seabiscuit wasn’t as big as the other thoroughbreds, Seabiscuit didn’t have the same wealthy stable, didn’t have the famous trainer, but Seabiscuit had heart,” Hickenlooper said.
“My wife will tell this story about how Seabiscuit worked harder and Seabiscuit would never quit. And then she’d pause and say, ‘My husband is Seabiscuit.’”