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Fighting for The Spoils

The multitasking politician: Emanuel talks to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press secretary Sarah Feinberg while taking a phone call.
The multitasking politician: Emanuel talks to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press secretary Sarah Feinberg while taking a phone call. (By Michael Marko -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

CHICAGO

This must be how Machiavelli ate his corned beef sandwiches.

Sitting in a South Side deli, Rahm Emanuel doesn't so much eat his lunch as overwhelm it with two hands and a hard stare. It's a combat glower familiar to the political opponents, reluctant donors and more than a few allies who have encountered the White House fixer-turned-Democratic-congressman in his still-young career. By most accounts, they usually didn't fare much better than the sandwich.

"There's no clean way to do this," Emanuel says, not quite clearly, through a garble of onion roll.

They heap the plates high at Manny's, an old-guard cafeteria popular with cops and pols. But within minutes, the football-size loaf of sliced meat and mustard is gone. Emanuel wipes his hands and picks up the BlackBerry that has been buzzing every 40 seconds or so on the Formica tabletop.

"God, I always eat it too fast," he mutters as he checks an e-mail. What follows is either a soft belch or a pfitz of surprise at some new poll results from Ohio.

Charging toward the biggest election day of his career, Emanuel, the 47-year-old chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, doesn't have much time for niceties.

Or, sometimes, even food. He's lost 14 pounds as the whirl of wheedling donors and lashing candidates to meet their fundraising targets has reached hurricane status in recent weeks. (It had been at least a year since he'd indulged his taste for Manny's corned beef.) He's always been slight, but his collar now gaps a bit at the neck; his cheeks, always lean, are now almost skeletal under the graying runner's buzz cut and the basset-hound eyes. He rubs his jaw (and you notice that he's missing a finger; he lost one to a boyhood infection). He admits he's not sleeping well.

"He's driving himself to exhaustion," says Paul Begala, a friend and political compatriot since they both served on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign and afterward in the White House. "He's like Lyndon Johnson, who finished almost every campaign in a hospital bed. As someone from Texas, I don't make that comparison lightly, but Rahm just may be our skinny, nine-fingered, Jewish, Chicago version of LBJ."

Whether that's a fair comparison may be clear soon. If, as historians say, Johnson began his conquest of Capitol Hill with the political chits he collected as a young and triumphant chairman of the Senate campaign committee, what does next month promise for Rahm Emanuel? As the member of Congress responsible for recruiting candidates for House races, raising money and vetting strategy for dozens of districts, he's received raves from campaign connoisseurs in Washington for running a taut committee. Notably, he's nearly closed the perennial cash-on-hand gap between his team -- with $36 million in the bank at the end of September -- and its GOP counterpart. He's fielded credible candidates in districts no one had expected to be in play a year ago. And he's generally been flogging the party like a never-satisfied CEO.

"He has been an amazing success any way you look at it," says congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "I think it's the best operation of any chairman of either party in several years."

If Democrats do take the House -- they need to gain 15 seats to do so -- Emanuel, in only his second term in Congress, stands to claim considerable credit for ending a 12-year electoral drought. That's the kind of triumph Johnson rode to the top of the Senate.


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