Steve Rosenthal Wages a $100 Million Battle to Line Up Democratic Votes
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page C01
There is President Bush and John Kerry and the merry band of bragsters, pollsters, pontificators, image-shapers flashing around on the higher reaches of cable TV. These are the brand names and faces of American politics.
Then there is Steve Rosenthal, a middle-aged Jewish guy with a big belly who looks like he'd be happy to live in Takoma Park, which he does, and coach his kid's baseball team, which he does. In this presidential election, he may be the most important person you've never heard of.
Rosenthal has $100 million at his disposal, no boss and only one job: to find, track and deliver Democrats to the polls come November. "Hopefully, a byproduct of this is that George Bush will end up back in Crawford and," he adds sardonically, "spend the next several years trying to figure out if he really did make mistakes."
Usually, get-out-the-vote operations start after Labor Day. Money gets spread. Precinct captains get their big day to swagger around. Not this time. The difference is that Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, is already prowling around out there. He is setting up an elaborate war plan that has more than a thousand paid foot soldiers marching up to doors in 17 battleground states. They come armed with Palm handhelds loaded with voter registration data and streaming video about education and jobs.
As head of America Coming Together, one of the best-funded political interest groups created after campaign finance reform, Rosenthal -- like the Republican National Committee -- has been at this for months. Like all ruthless fighters, he is not always nice.
"He is as mean and tough and vicious as they come," says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, "and that makes him more attractive. He's the last great hope of the Democratic Party."
On this hot day in Philadelphia, Rosenthal is being nice.
"What you are all doing is incredible," he tells about 45 members of the Palm brigade, canvassers searching rough neighborhoods for the real people to match the voter data they carry. He lavishes them with a few more phrases of praise -- he has learned to do this sort of thing -- then moves on to what he really relishes.
"I am going to give you two numbers: 172. And the other is 537. Anybody know what either of them are?" Rosenthal asks.
"Electoral votes?" somebody calls out.
"No," he says. "Not a bad guess."
Somebody else confuses 537 with 527, the section of the tax code that gives the political advocacy groups their label.
He waits. No one has any more guesses.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company