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.
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.' "
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."
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."