PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ On one of their first dates, many years ago, Jeff Merkley sat beside Mary Sorteberg on a bench in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle.
"Where would you go, if you could go anywhere in the world?" he suddenly asked.
Sorteberg, now his wife, didn't hesitate.
"Calcutta, India," she told him. She wanted to work with Mother Theresa's Sisters.
"Well, you should go then," he told her. "Why aren't you planning your trip?"
"In my mind," Sorteberg said, "it wasn't necessarily that tangible."
For Merkley, as with most things, it was.
The belief that just about anything is possible is one that seems to have followed Merkley, Oregon's senator-elect, through his political career.
Five year ago, despite skepticism that he was too much an idea man and not enough a politician, Merkley was elected the Democratic caucus leader in the Oregon House.
Two years later, he would lead the Democrats to retake control of the House for first time in 16 years. In 2007, he helped orchestrate what Democrats have called one the Legislature's most productive sessions.
When Merkley announced his bid to challenge two-term Republican Gordon Smith and become Oregon's next U.S. senator, there were two sorts of people, said current Democratic leader Dave Hunt.
There were those who thought it was unlikely. And then there were those who thought it was impossible.
"I was probably at 'unlikely,' " Hunt said. But, he said, "Jeff seems to specialize in facing unlikely scenarios."
When Merkley and Sorteberg started talking about a run for the Senate, they kept going back and forth. Just as one started to think it was a good idea, the other would back off.
"We really just kept coming back to the feeling that is was the right thing to do, not that it was the easy thing to do by any means," Sorteberg said. "We're both driven by a desire to make the world a better place. It sounds hokey when I say it out loud, but it's really the heart of where we're both coming from."
Indeed, when Merkley held his press conference to announce his victory, he ended his comments with a heartfelt cliche: "It's time to change the world!"
Merkley is drawn to the Senate, friends insist, not because he is interested in exercising power or increasing his own wealth but to make a difference — particularly for the working class.
"I think what finally convinced him was just the opportunity to do something really extraordinary," said Maria Wulff, who worked with Merkley at Oregon's World Affairs Council, of which she is now president. "It's this genuine notion of public service."
That drive is a direct result of Merkley's own modest background, said Eric Schwartz, a friend of Merkley's for almost 30 years. The son of a mill worker, Merkley was the first in his family to attend college.
"He has never really lost that real connection to the people who work with their hands for a living, who may be just a few paychecks away from very difficult economic circumstances," Schwartz said. "He will be a symbol for the proposition that the U.S. Senate need not be a club that is exclusively for millionaires."
This populist ideology has already cropped up in Merkley's work for the Oregon House, where he oversaw the passage of a number of pro-consumer laws, including tighter regulation of the payday loan industry. Phrases like "living wages" and "affordable housing" often find their way into his stump speeches. He has promised to visit each of Oregon's counties once a year, rural and urban alike.
"He, I think, cares and understands what life is like for average people," said state Rep. Diane Rosenbaum.
Rosenbaum, a Democrat who recently won election to a seat in the Oregon Senate, remembers serving on a committee with Merkley a few years back. Whenever issues of predatory consumer lending came up, she said, "he was always very concerned."
It's this core perspective that friends and colleagues believe will set Merkley's agenda in the Senate.
Beyond consumer advocacy, they see him taking on health care and education as top priorities. They also say he's smart enough, knows numbers well enough, that he could be a valuable asset on economic issues like few other in the Senate could be. He could also emerge as a voice in foreign policy.
After his victory speech, Merkley said he had already been in touch with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York to make his pitch for a number of committee assignments including appropriations, energy, health, education and labor.
Early Wednesday morning, more than 12 hours after polls had closed and a winner still hadn't been announced in the Senate race, Merkley sat in his kitchen with Sorteberg and Schwartz.
"There was all sorts of nervousness about the campaign," Schwartz said.
But rather than stew — that's not Merkley's style — he went over to a computer, pulled up a spreadsheet and started crunching some numbers. Minutes later, he decided he'd win by about 60,000 votes. His lead is about 52,000.
"It was just such a Jeff-thing to do," Sorteberg said.
He may get caught up in the numbers and statistics, she said, but it's his way of finding an ultimately pragmatic path.
As Rosenbaum explains it, "his career really has been devoted to finding practical solutions but making sure they're grounded in real fact. I certainly have experienced that he loves to gather lots of information."
That goes for opinions, too.
Though Merkley holds his own strong opinions, Rosenbaum said, he likes to surround himself with discussion. Just days after the Democrats had won their majority in the House a couple years back, Merkley went to work, adjusting floor rules, promising that the majority wouldn't just derail the minority.
"He listens to people," Rosenbaum said. "I think I would describe (him) as determined, but also very open."