Kay Hagan already knows the ups and downs of the U.S. Senate.
During a Capitol internship in the mid-'70s, she operated the bronze elevator that ferried senators to and from the chamber. Squeezing inside were members such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and her uncle, Lawton Chiles of Florida.
At the controls, the senator's niece daydreamed about a political career of her own.
"You aspire to it," she says. "It's infectious."
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Now the Greensboro Democrat wants to return to Washington.
Hagan, 55, is challenging Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in one of the country's highest-profile contests.
Polls show a tight race in what to some extent has become a referendum on Dole and Congress. Outside groups including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have by some estimates spent nearly $6 million on ads attacking the first-term incumbent.
Hagan, once little-known outside Greensboro and Raleigh, is running hard.
Genetically energetic, she's an exercise junkie who loves yoga and Pilates and early-morning runs.
She was a middle-school cheerleader, president of a high school service club, a lifeguard, piano student and ballet dancer who once led 300 costumed dancers through the streets of Disney World. As a civic activist in Greensboro and later state senator, she juggled committee meetings with soccer games and Girl Scouts.
On Thursday, she bounced around a luncheon of Charlotte Democrats, working tables and making a speech before hurrying to another appointment.
"The campaign in that sense is a projection of who she is and her style," says Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat. "It's a very high-energy campaign."
Critics question Hagan's independence and accuse her of dancing around issues. She refused to take a position on the House's original Wall Street bailout bill, for example, and came out against the Senate version only after it passed.
"She's a totally typical 'go-along' – hasn't had an independent thought in her life," says former GOP state Sen. Mark McDaniel, who lost to Hagan in 2002.
"She'll be Harry Reid in a skirt," he adds, referring to the Senate Democratic leader.
"She didn't take any crap," says Senate Democratic Leader Marc Basnight of Manteo. "She didn't take it off me. She didn't take it off anyone."
Kay Ruthven was born in Shelby, the second of three children. Her father worked in the tire business, her mother stayed at home.
The family moved to Charleston when she was 2 and later went on to Lakeland, Fla., where her father would serve as mayor. Hagan went to public schools and learned survival skills from her brothers.
"Being the girl in the middle," she says, "I had to fight for everything I got."
Hagan went to Florida State and law school at Wake Forest. There she met fellow student Chip Hagan. After their first date, she called her mother.
"I told her I met the man I'm going to marry," she recalls.
They moved to Greensboro, where the Hagan family was well-established.
Chip Hagan's father, a former Marine Corps general, was a prominent lawyer and one-time prosecutor who helped oversee the opening of the city's War Memorial Coliseum in 1959. Thirty-five years later, Chip and Kay Hagan co-chaired its gala re-opening after a major expansion. It was one of many community roles for each.
Chip Hagan led the Greensboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Guilford County Democrats. Kay Hagan served with groups such as the YWCA, the arts council and the Triad Leadership Network. She's also an elder at her Presbyterian church.
When UNC Greensboro hosted an NCAA soccer tournament in 1997, Hagan joined other volunteers on a cold, snowy morning blowing up thousands of balloons until their fingers were raw.
"I can't remember a time when Kay was not active in the community," says Sue Wink, a friend for 30 years. "She juggled more hats than anyone."
After Hagan first arrived in Greensboro, she worked in the trust division for what would later become Bank of America. She left when she had her third child in 1986.
The Hagans are well-off: Chip Hagan is worth between $10.7 million and $44 million, according to disclosure reports. They sent their children to private schools – a move critics say was inconsistent with her outspoken support for public education.
Hagan says she wanted to make sure her children had access to science, physical education and foreign languages.
"I graduated from public education," she says. "I'm a very strong supporter."
In 1992 and '96, Hagan chaired Jim Hunt's Guilford County gubernatorial campaigns. In 1998, he helped recruit her to run for the state Senate.
"What drew me to her was her involvement in the community," he says. "(She was) just a real dynamo."
Republican John Blust, whom Hagan defeated, calls it "a good advantage for her to be connected with a family that everybody respected."
In the Senate, Hagan impressed Basnight, who made her co-chair of the budget committee. She's known as a hard driver, a pro-business Democrat who supports her party's majority.
Critics such as Senate GOP leader Phil Berger of Rockingham call her "a lapdog of the Democrat leadership."
Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, says Hagan is "in the mainstream both in her views and in her circles."
"She is safely between the lines," he says, "and very competent."
Democratic Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham, a chair of the House finance committee, says Hagan's determination "sometimes comes across as 'my way or the highway.' "
But Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County says, "You can disagree agreeably with Kay."
Though reporters push for more transparency, Hagan counts opening the budget process to the media as an example of changes she's brought to government. She says she's also helped change her community. Her family's Christmas ritual, for example, now includes cooking breakfast at a home for disabled adults.
Hagan likes to take her family on long backpacking trips. On vacations, she usually insists on sidetrips to any museum or roadside attraction that might offer a new experience.
Like the crowded Senate elevators, she likes to pack a lot in.
"I like to get a lot done in one day," she says. "But I also like to have a good time doing it."