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Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood's Choice Leader

"The reason I took this job is, I feel like we need to go into the 21st century," says Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, here greeting a supporter. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Her March Madness is South Dakota.

Behind her, Planned Parenthood's Colleen McCabe laughed knowingly. "I walked out of our office this morning to get coffee," she said, "and ran into Tom Daschle" -- the former senator from South Dakota. "It's South Dakota, all the time."

Richards nodded.

And Mississippi is gaining on them: Later, while idling outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on 16th Street NW, waiting for two others to join them, McCabe thumbed her BlackBerry for the status of Mississippi's abortion vote.

"They haven't had the up-or-down vote yet," she said, but it was expected soon, and both anticipate that the state's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, will sign it if it passes.

"Mississippi is a really interesting state," Richards mused, her voice bright and optimistic. "I think there are some real opportunities there."

McCabe stared at her.

"I know you think I'm crazy," Richards continued. "There's a lot of undervoting" among people likely to support abortion rights. And "coming from Texas," she added, she had ideas on how they might use that undervoting to their advantage.

Richards is a longtime labor organizer who directed the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, the same campaign Adrien Brody dramatized in the movie "Bread and Roses." A former deputy chief of staff for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, she founded and directed America Votes, a coalition of more than 30 national organizations that worked to turn out voters in 2004.

"Our adversaries have done us an enormous favor," she says, referring to the "passive healthy majority" of Americans -- especially young Americans -- who believe "this is a decision women should be making, but [that] it's not an issue at risk." Her time in the trenches, however, has taught her that stirring rhetoric means nothing without the votes.

At lunch on Thursday, Richards peppered eight women with questions about where Planned Parenthood should go:

Should they be talking more about abortion? Or should they emphasize the fact that 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does -- mammograms, pap tests, HIV tests, screening and treatment for STDs, infertility screening and counseling, mental health services and prenatal care -- has nothing to do with abortion? At the luncheon, the women called this "the message struggle."

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