Leading the Dems' Charge

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DAVID SCULL FOR TIME

Congressman Rahm Emanuel on Capitol Hill

Congressman Rahm Emanuel boasts that “patience ain’t a virtue in my book,” and that's especially clear when the feisty Democrat from Illinois is trying to recruit candidates to run in November's mid-term elections. Last summer, for instance, when Emanuel tried to convince Heath Shuler, former star quarterback at the University of Tennessee, to run for Congress from his native North Carolina, he had to make a hard sell. Shuler said he was worried he wouldn’t get enough time with his two young children if he was constantly shuttling back and forth from Capitol Hill, so Emanuel had more than a dozen congressional Democrats with kids call Shuler. Then he barraged Shuler himself with more than 40 calls over two weeks, just to prove it was possible to serve in Congress and still see your children. “Heath, Rahm, I’m at the pool with my kids,” he said, and then quickly hung up. Another time, “Heath, I”m driving my kids to school.” Later, “Heath, we’re getting ready for soccer practice.”

He was tireless, perhaps even annoying, and wouldn't take no for an answer—just the kind of qualities that might be required to rally the Democratic troops gearing up for the best chance the party has to take back Congress since the GOP won both the House and Senate in 1994. Even with Republicans reeling from the Jack Abramoff scandal and President Bush still down in the polls,it won’t be easy: the Democrats need to capture 15 seats to control the House and six to win the Senate, and the party has lost ground in the last two congressional elections. But if anyone can pull it off, it's probably Emanuel, head of the Democratic campaign committee, and his Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, of New York. “These are the two most aggressive campaign committee chairman in modern American history,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.

So far, Schumer has accomplished the rare coup of raising more money for Democratic Senate candidates than his Republican colleague, Elizabeth Dole, taking in $44 million, compared to the GOP’s $35 million. Emanuel hasn’t been as successful in fundraising, but he’s recruited some well-regarded candidates, including a group of Iraq war veterans and Shuler. At the same time, the pair have also emerged as key Democratic players on Capitol Hill. With his endless stream of press releases and press conferences, Schumer is perhaps the Dem's leading attack dog; over the last week he has lead his party in demanding information on any meetings the White House had with Abramoff. Emanuel has long pushed for the lobbying reforms that both parties are now so suddenly embracing. Both have made clear that the Abramoff scandal alone won’t hand Democrats control of Congress. Instead, they’re hoping to use the stench of corruption and other issues, such as the unpopular Medicare prescription drug plan, to paint Republicans as too close to “special interests” like drug companies.

Taking back Congress seems a perfect task for two such ambitious men as Schumer and Emanuel, who by dint of their abrasive personalities aren't likely to ever appear on a presidential ballot. In the 1980s, Emanuel was working for a consumer watchdog group in Illinois when a political journalist told him he didn’t have time to write about the group because his wife was having a baby. Emanuel showed up in the recovery room, said “Mazel Tov” and immediately asked, “when do you think you’ll be back to write that story?” He once sent a 2.5-foot dead fish to a pollster whose advice he didn’t like. Now 46, Emanuel went on to become one of President Clinton’s top political aides, pushing such popular ideas as expanding the use of school uniforms. He left government in 1998, made $16 million as an investment banker and then won a House seat representing his native Chicago in 2002. Since returning to the nation's capital, he’s mellowed slightly as a congressman, but is still known for occasionally yelling at congressional staffers and adding profanity to every other sentence. Schumer, who won a seat in the New York State Assembly at the age of 23 after graduating from Harvard Law School, is friendlier, but can be just as grating. Trying to get the White House to support a provision he wanted in a crime bill in 1994, he grabbed one of Clinton’s aides, backed him against a wall and said, “You’ve got to do this.” (It worked.) On the Senate Judiciary Committee, his colleagues occasionally tell him to stop talking so witnesses can actually answer his questions.

Both are well-suited for the sometimes ruthless work of running their party's campaign committees. Looking to knock off Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum, Schumer recruited Bob Casey, the popular, anti-abortion rights secretary of state there, and pressured an abortion rights advocate running for the seat to withdraw—angering abortion rights activists who are key donors to the party. “The days are over when a Democratic candidate has to check off 18 politically correct boxes,” Schumer says. In a congressional race in Illinois, Emanuel recruited Tammy Duckworth, a Army major who lost both her legs in Iraq, pushing aside another candidate already in the race and, in the process, alienating local Democrats.

But while the pair is following the lead of Karl Rove, the GOP strategist who often hand-picks which congressional candidates will run, they haven’t yet shown they can match his effectiveness. In Rhode Island, Schumer wanted another popular pro-life Democrat, James Langevin, to run, but Langevin passed on the Senate race after abortion rights groups sharply objected. Schumer has been one of the leaders in crafting the party's strategy on judicial nominations, but Senate Democrats put on one of the most feeble challenges of a Supreme Court nominee in recent memory during the Alito hearings. And two of Schumer’s committee aides stepped down last year amid accusations that they illegally obtained the credit report of Michael Steele, a GOP Senate candidate in Maryland. Emanuel, meanwhile, has been outraised by House Republicans ($60 million to $37 million) and hasn’t been able to match the sway of Schumer with his own colleagues. Over Emanuel's strong objections, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for a speedy withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, a position Emanuel has told friends may well cause political problems for the party.

More than anything, each man has the challenge of trying to market a party that is still struggling to find a unified, winning message. The Dems' leaders are divided on Iraq, haven’t agreed on what policy ideas they will offer in the fall and haven’t yet figured out how to convince Americans they’re as tough as the GOP on terrorism, which Rove said last week will again be the key issue for the GOP come November. Asked about the prospects for the fall, Emanuel declined and said, “my job is to affect races and not predict them.” He and Schumer may be impatient, but after twelve years of Republican rule, they know better than to be overconfident.