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The man who Democrats hope can take that Hill

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, David T. CookStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 2005


Rahm Emanuel entered the room with a résumé as outsized as any second-term congressman: top aide to President Clinton, millionaire investment banker, professional ballet dancer, volunteer at an Israeli supply base during the Gulf War.

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He's also the guy who, while working at the Democratic Party's congressional recruitment committee in the 1980s, once famously sent a rotting fish to a pollster who he felt had given him bad numbers. Mr. Emanuel now represents Chicago's north side - the old district of another larger-than-life Chicago pol, Dan Rostenkowski - in the US House of Representatives, and has risen quickly in party ranks. And Congressman Emanuel has mellowed since his suffer-no-fools-gladly days in the White House, say friends and political observers.

But, as the newly minted chair of that same Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he once worked for - known around town just as the DCCC - and, increasingly, a leading voice for the party on policy, the edgy and brash Emanuel is still what the party is banking on as it seeks to retake control of the House.

In his first appearance at a Monitor breakfast, on Thursday, it was the measured Emanuel who showed his face - for the most part. Not used to sitting down with several dozen Washington reporters in one go, he chose his words carefully, often thinking out loud rather than emitting sound bites.

But when asked if House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas is on his list of vulnerable incumbents he wants to go after, the feisty Emanuel reemerged: "If I told you, I would have to kill you!" he said, smiling broadly. "There are no districts that are absolutely off the table."

Indeed, ever since Congressman DeLay emerged as the enforcer to low-key House Speaker Dennis Hastert (another Illinoisian), the Democrats have been itching to oust DeLay from his perch - much the way the Republicans ousted the sitting Speaker, Tom Foley, from his congressional seat in the sea-change election of 1994. A look at DeLay's performance last November - winning reelection with just 55 percent of the vote - combined with recent rebukes over ethics and continuing investigations reveals the potential for vulnerability.

But Emanuel would rather talk about the members on the Democratic side he is working hardest to protect, those representing Republican districts, such as Stephanie Herseth in South Dakota and Dennis Moore in Kansas. In the 2006 election cycle, the DCCC has cut in half, to 10, the number of vulnerable incumbents it will help with fundraising in its "Frontline" program.

The Democrats face a steep climb to retake the majority, with a current balance of 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats, one independent, and few seats that appear as of now to be in play. But no one can tell the Democrats to stop dreaming or the Republicans to stop worrying. In 1994, the Democrats went into the November election with a 256-178 majority and came out in the minority - and have been there ever since.

"I don't think anyone can tell you, 18 to 19 months out, what is going to happen," says Emanuel. But, he continues, "I am telling you what I told the caucus the day that they asked me to do this: 'Minimize our defensive posture, maximize our offensive posture.' "