Waiting in the Wings: Cantor and Boehner

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Bill Clark / Roll Call / Getty Images

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, participate in a House GOP news conference on health care on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor — who, if the polls are any guide, are poised to become the next House Speaker and majority leader — are like the tortoise and the hare.

Boehner, 60, is the older and wiser of the pair. He learned politics working as a busboy in his father's Cincinnati bar, Andy's Cafe, a few blocks from the family's two-bedroom apartment. His father had a knack for putting people at ease, Boehner says; he also knew when to cut them off. The second of 12 children, Boehner put himself through nearby Xavier University, taking seven years and a janitorial job to finish. He then rose from salesman to president at a small plastics company before riding the Reagan wave into the Ohio state legislature in 1984. He has had a long, stop-and-go march up the leadership ladder; doing things quickly has never been his style. In fact, there is much about Boehner that might be described as leisurely: hours on the golf course have bronzed his skin to a shade George Hamilton would admire. A fan of red wine and beefsteak, Boehner chain-smokes Camel Ultra Lights.

By contrast, the pale-faced Cantor can't seem to sit still. A Richmond native who likes to brag that he holds the seat once held by James Madison, Cantor, 47, had a meteoric rise through the GOP ranks. He holds degrees from George Washington University, William and Mary and Columbia. He met his investment-banker wife on a blind date and went into his family's well-established financial-services business before being elected to the Virginia house of delegates in 1991. A decade later, he went to Congress in the first year of George W. Bush's presidency. The only Jewish Republican currently in the House, Cantor seems to subsist on a regimen of tuna sandwiches and diet soda.

As party leaders, Boehner has been the good cop to Cantor's firmer hand; the two have held the House Republicans together in vote after vote against Obama's agenda. There is a measure of rivalry in their relationship: Cantor did not back Boehner for the top party job and has made little secret of his own ambitions. If the Republicans take the House, Boehner will be Speaker and Cantor will become the youngest majority leader since Charlie Halleck won the job in 1947.