WASHINGTON -- It seems like Bob Casey is always on his way somewhere but never in a rush. He bounces between committee meetings and conference calls -- sometimes leaving in the middle for a vote and then returning to the phone or to the legislative hearing.
He works deliberatively at each task and then turns on a dime when another demand pops up.
This is what it takes to build the kind of federal policies he thinks will create jobs, improve the economy, help domestic companies compete with overseas competitors and improve health care.
Mr. Casey is proud of the work he's done in his first term in the U.S. Senate, but he is running for a second in the Nov. 6 election to continue the progress.
Republican challenger Tom Smith of Armstrong County, meanwhile, wants a chance to take the country in a new, more conservative direction. His campaign has dubbed Mr. Casey "Senator Zero," saying he hasn't passed a single bill.
Technically, Mr. Smith's supporters are right, but what they haven't said is that several of Mr. Casey's bills have been folded into other legislation that's been enacted, or that the senator carried the water for Democrats in a partisan battle to extend an expiring payroll tax break that was a key part of President Barack Obama's domestic agenda.
He also has been an advocate for women, introducing a bill to address domestic violence and sexual assault on college campuses and leading the charge to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Act to improve pay parity for women.
Mr. Casey, 52, said his first term has been productive, "but you always want to do more, and it's been a difficult time to serve because of the partisanship."
Political scientists widely view Washington as more partisan than it's been in decades.
"Progress is grinding to a halt and it's frustrating for people in both parties. It's harder to get agreement, but we do it despite that," said Mr. Casey, who sees himself as a compromiser.
Growing up with seven siblings probably helped, said his oldest sister Margi McGrath.
"With the kind of family life we had he was always in a big group and he didn't always get his way," she said.
Typically, she said, young Bobby played the role of peacemaker, trying to forge compromises among squabbling siblings.
"There would be a lot of heated discussions, especially among the boys, and different ones would be arguing among themselves, but not Bob. He would just listen to all sides ... he had such a calming effect," Mrs. McGrath said.
Washington needs more mild-mannered compromisers like Mr. Casey, his sister said.
"With all the gridlock, there's never been a time more important to have people like him to bring the temperatures down and say 'Let's calm down. Let's sit down at the table.' There's nobody better at that," she said.
Friends like Mike Adams, 51, say Mr. Casey is tougher than he appears.
"He has a very welcoming and warm demeanor but a very, very tough interior," said Mr. Adams, a retired attorney who owns Elizabeth Milling Co. in Smithton. "He's all about substance and results."
He said Mr. Casey is pragmatic, reasonable and willing to work with anybody. That's a rare combination to find in a city full of politicians absorbed by partisanship and self-promotion, he said.
Mr. Casey knew what he was getting into when he entered public life in 1996, when he ran for state auditor general.
He'd already seen his father, the popular Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey, through the highs and lows of political life, winning and losing elections. And, from the sidelines, he'd watched political strife unfold when his father had fallings out with party mates, including Bill Clinton, over his conservative positions on abortion.
"He provided a good example for how to handle adversity," Mr. Casey said of his father.
Mrs. McGrath said her brother inherited her father's deep sense of responsibility to constituents, but he's less intense and more approachable.
"My father was very serious. He was so, so worried all the time and intense -- in a wonderful way that allowed him to get so much done in his life," she said. "Bob is more easygoing, more affable."
Sometimes he gets more unsolicited sibling advice than a lot of people would willingly bear.
"He listens whether he's asked for it or not, and that's what I think is his saving grace," Mrs. McGrath said. "He's willing to let people vent and he take all kinds of time explaining. If someone is upset about something, he really wants to hear them out."
That's true at both family functions and constituent events where he'll stay as long as there are people left who want to talk to him, she said.
Terese Casey accompanies her husband to political events, but they try to shield their four daughters from too much talk about politics, the same way his father did when he was young.
"I think you can expose children to too much about politics. The idea is to let them lead their lives so you try not to bring all that home," Mr. Casey said.
The former governor was so effective at it that his son was 9 before he realized the importance of what his father was trying to do. That was when he picked up a Philadelphia newspaper and read profiles of his father, who was then running for auditor general in an election he would win.
"I remember reading that and thinking 'This is a pretty significant thing he's doing.' It really hit me," Mr. Casey said.
Suddenly his mind was open to more cerebral pursuits that eventually led him to law school like his father, the auditor general's office like his father, and the state treasurer's office. Before that, he worked for several years as a private practice attorney and for one year as a fifth-grade teacher and eighth-grade basketball coach in Philadelphia through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Mr. Casey ran in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, losing to Ed Rendell, who would win two terms as governor.
The day after his primary loss, Mr. Casey consoled himself by taking two of his daughters, then in grade school, to the movies to see the animated feature "Ice Age." The next day he was back at his desk in the auditor general's office and he never looked back.
"I remember thinking he [lost] three times; I can do it once," he said. "He just went forward and went back to work, and that's what I did."
He hasn't lost another election since, including a hard-fought and stunning win six years ago over incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
Since then he's worked to steer more federal dollars toward medical research, to prevent China from devaluing its currency, to extend expiring middle-class tax breaks, to create jobs and to stop the country from investing in Iranian energy. Along the way, he's developed a reputation within the Beltway as someone who understands both parochial interests and sweeping policy.
"Sen. Casey has always put Pennsylvania first and that's why he's been very aggressive on trade enforcement," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. When you're from a manufacturing state like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it's what constituents expect, and trade policy has been a priority for Mr. Casey.
Mr. Casey said he feels a deep responsibility to fulfill the needs of those who elected him.
"There's nothing more satisfying and enriching in a personal way than to know you're helping someone or helping a lot of people," he said.
Sometimes that's meant bucking his own party, for example on construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and on trade policies with Panama, Colombia and South Korea that had been strongly advocated by Mr. Obama, who normally has Mr. Casey's support.
The senator wanted the pipeline because it would help build the country's energy independence and that would have helped manufacturers in Pennsylvania. He said he opposed the trade policies because they didn't go far enough to help level the playing field for the steel industry.
Mr. Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat, is also out of step with his party on abortion policy.
"If you look at my record I think it's pretty clear that I've been an independent voice for the state and I've put the state first. Sometimes that means you're in disagreement with folks in your party," Mr. Casey said.
Early in the campaign Mr. Smith and Republican primary candidate Steve Welch ran television commercials and comical Internet videos characterizing Mr. Casey as too closely tied to the president's "failed policies."
Those ads stopped after the president started gaining traction in public opinion polls, but the attacks on Mr. Casey's character did not. The latest ads call him a "failed career politician" and lump him in not with the president but with "the political class."
Mr. Casey and Mr. Smith differ on nearly every policy issue outside of gun control, which both oppose. They approach common ground on abortion policy, but Mr. Casey would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest, while Mr. Smith says it should never be legal.
Mr. Smith opposes all tax increases while Mr. Casey has repeatedly sought support for additional taxes on income above $1 million. Mr. Casey supported the Affordable Care Act while Mr. Smith wants to help repeal it.
"This Senate race is about as clear of a contrast as you can imagine on a range of issues: Medicare, Social Security, taxes, how to grow the economy. Voters can make a clear choice," Mr. Casey said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 703-996-9292. First Published October 14, 2012 4:00 AM