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The man who Democrats hope can take that Hill

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It has become his mantra. Open seats - those where a member has retired or been defeated in the primary - are "priority A," he says. "B is where you have a member who not only performed below 55 percent but [has] other issues that are going on in that district."

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When Emanuel was named to chair the DCCC, political Washington stood up and took notice. "Rahm's a good selection and can only improve things," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter, noting that Emanuel not only was a top policy adviser to Clinton but also his finance chair during the 1992 election. "He understands politics and elections, he knows fundraising, he has national contacts. And I think people feel he can do well and so he probably will."

Amy Walter, House-watcher for the Cook Political report, likens the role of DCCC to that of a college president. "You just need to be able to raise money. So that's your No. 1 job. And then you need to know how and where to spend it."

Unlike most members of Congress, who focus largely on their own districts, Emanuel is used to looking at the political map nationally. Having just won reelection with 76 percent of the vote, he can afford to range far from home. He is also rare in the political world: someone who has labored long behind the political scenes, starting as a press person for the Illinois group Public Action, and successfully made the leap into elective politics.

Emanuel comes into the DCCC job with no expectation that he can pull off a miracle anytime soon - that is, engineer an early Democratic takeover of the House. Still, expectations for him are high. For one thing, says Rothenberg, there's hope that he'll stick around in the job for a few cycles, to build the kind of operation needed to succeed.

"He has a reputation that precedes him, and it's larger than life - this guy whose nickname is Rahmbo, and the whole fish story," says Ms. Walter. "He does come from a background of being a real political animal. There's a segment of the party that feels [the Democrats] need to start punching back. The party has been taking it on the chin since 2000. And then Tom DeLay beats them on redistricting and the Democrats lose seats in the last two elections."

Now, with Emanuel in place, she concludes, the message is "no more Mr. Nice Guy."

Emanuel has also become a lead spokesman for the party on issues, including Social Security, and with his background in finance, has strong views on the issue of saving for retirement.

He believes that for the Democrats to retake the House, they have to become a party of reform - both on ethics and on policy. "I think we should be the party of tax reform, massive tax reform, because the code is skewed to those who have lawyers, accountants, and people who can think of schemes," he says. "I know of no middle-class family that sets up a shelter in Bermuda to pay for college education for the kids."