The Miracle Worker

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BROOKS KRAFT—CORBIS FOR TIME

WINNING TEAM: Cahill and Kerry, with media consultant Bob Shrum, right, look over primary results before a rally at George Mason University

No one enjoys a chance to poke a little fun at the mannerisms of Boston's Brahmin class as much as those who grew up in its working-class shadows. Which is probably why the daughter of St. Peter's parish in Dorchester, Mass., delivers such a wicked funny impression of the deep patrician voice that was on the other end of the line when she picked up the phone at home one Friday night last November. "Mary Beth," she says, tucking her chin, locking her jaw and dropping a register or two, "this is John Kerry." Mary Beth Cahill knew why he was calling. The presidential candidate whom everyone had once anointed the Democratic front runner was careering toward oblivion. Kerry was about to fire his campaign manager and wanted Senator Edward Kennedy's chief of staff to take over an operation that was short on money, full of backbiting and left in the dust by the Internet-and-anger-fueled phenomenon that was Howard Dean. "So I showed up Monday morning," she says, "and that was that."

It was not the first time the former congressional-office receptionist had got a 911 call from a desperate politician. At a time when operatives can become as famous as the candidates they work for, Cahill's is not a name you hear on the cable-and-best-seller circuit. But few can match her record for turning around campaigns that are just this side of hopeless. And she was one of the few people left in Washington who shared Kerry's belief that his luck hadn't run out. "She felt it was winnable," Kerry told TIME. "She distinctly felt that, as I did. But we knew we had to make some adjustments."

That's a delicate way of describing the upheaval that took place when Cahill arrived the following Monday morning at the shabby Capitol Hill town house that serves as campaign headquarters. Three months later, Kerry finds himself with 18 primaries and caucus wins under his belt and could be on the verge of clinching the nomination. Campaigns are won by candidates, of course, but someone had to come up with and stick to a plan that would have Kerry standing in just the right spot if lightning struck. That was Cahill's job, and the against-the-odds strategy that she executed paid off in ways that more than justified the confidence Kerry had placed in her. "It just liberated me," Kerry says of her arrival. "It completely liberated me to focus on my message and focus on the energy I needed to put into day-to-day campaigning and on the people I was meeting. To not be distracted, to be able to really just give it 100% focus, which is what it takes. It helped to make me a better candidate."

In pulling it off, the 49-year-old woman with a shock of prematurely white hair has brought back into fashion the fundamentals of politics—the organization and discipline that seemed quaintly last century when stacked up against the technology and passion and money that Dean had going for him. But it's her personal toughness that the politicians who have relied on her talk about more than anything else. Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy credits that quality with pulling him through his most difficult race ever. He hired Cahill to run his 1986 re-election race when, after barely winning his first two Senate runs, he found himself up against four-term Governor Richard Snelling, one of the state's biggest vote getters. It was Cahill's first chance to run a big race, and it was getting national attention because Leahy had been pegged as one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country. "She just told me what I was going to do and gave me that look, and I said, 'All right,'" Leahy says. "To this day, people consider it the best-run campaign in Vermont history." When Snelling hired an ad firm known for its attacks, Cahill put up pre-emptive ads lamenting the prospect of negative campaigning in a state known for civilized politics. "The poor guy got so flustered, he didn't know what to do," Leahy recalls. "People were coming up to him saying 'We don't do this in Vermont.'"

Toward the end, the exhausted Leahy wanted to coast, pleading he didn't need to make yet another trip to a small town he had already been to half a dozen times. "Why am I dragging myself down there again?" Leahy protested. "I'm going to win anyway." Cahill cut him off: "Do you want to win, or do you want to win big?" He trounced Snelling on Election Day by 29 points. Four years later, Cahill engineered an equally unlikely landslide for Rhode Island's eccentric Claiborne Pell.

Cahill grew up in a part of Boston where politics "comes with your mother's milk," says Father Robert Drinan, the former Congressman of antiwar fame. He hired Cahill to answer phones in his office in 1976, when she graduated from Emmanuel College, a Catholic institution that was still all women at the time. The daughter of an Irish immigrant autoworker at General Motors' Framingham factory and a first-generation Irish-American homemaker, Cahill attributes her bossiness to being the eldest of six children (three boys, three girls) and says she honed her political reflexes at a dinner table at which "you were expected to have an opinion and you were expected to be able to defend it." When the Roman Catholic Church ordered Father Drinan and all other priests out of politics, she stayed on doing constituent work and organizing campaigns for his successor, Barney Frank, and then went on to a string of political jobs that included a stint running EMILY's List, a fund-raising powerhouse that trains and raises money for women candidates. She also ran Bill Clinton's White House liaison operation, handling various constituency groups, including business. While working on China trade policy, she met her future husband Steve Champlin, a lobbyist for the Duberstein Group, but the two didn't really start to get to know each other until they found themselves with time to kill at the Seattle airport after the riotous WTO talks of 1999. Their courtship played out in a uniquely Beltway fashion. She asked him to the White House Millennium Ball. ("Not too much pressure," she laughs.) In less than a year, they were married.

When Cahill landed at the Kerry campaign, it needed a battle plan—and a peace plan. Fighting within the campaign had become so bad that the factions had drafted dueling versions of Kerry's announcement speech. The feuding provided plenty of material for reporters, to the point where focus groups in New Hampshire started telling pollsters they couldn't see handing the country over to someone who couldn't even run his own campaign.

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