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The Outsider's Insider

(By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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When the Senate last month approved a bill that banned lawmakers from flying on corporate jets at discounted rates and required disclosure of the names of lobbyists who also serve as "bundlers," rounding up contributions for candidates, Obama touted his role in getting it passed.

"Pete knows that when you're first elected to the Senate, you've got to pay your dues, visit with senior senators and deliver for your home state," said Chris Lu, Obama's legislative director. "But Pete recognized that Obama's appeal was that he was an outsider and would never be a typical senator, so Pete helped Obama find the delicate balance between being a rank-and-file senator and high-profile national figure."

Building a Campaign

By last fall, two years after he was elected to the Senate, Obama had a second best-selling book, received invitations to speak even in conservative states such as Nebraska and was starting to seriously consider a run for the White House, far sooner than he -- or Rouse -- had anticipated.

Rouse, who organized a presidential operation in 2002 for Daschle before the South Dakotan decided not to run, swung into action. In September, when Obama decided to travel to Iowa to test the waters, Rouse called Steve Hildebrand, an old friend from the Daschle operation who ran Al Gore's Iowa campaign in 2000, to show him around the state, even though the pair had never met.

"I thought, let's have a little fun with this. I wanted to create a little buzz," Rouse said. And he did.

Three other campaigns quickly called Hildebrand, wanting to hire him before Obama formally decided to enter the race.

In November, when more than a dozen advisers met with Obama in Axelrod's Chicago office to discuss running, it was Rouse who had prepared the memos detailing how Obama could win and the pros and cons of running in 2008 versus waiting.

And after Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) decided against a presidential bid in December, it was Rouse who called Bayh's communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, the next day. Rouse, who had hired Pfeiffer in 2002 for what they thought would be Daschle's presidential campaign, wanted him to join the Obama team.

"Do you know what a sense of d�j� vu I'm having?" Pfeiffer asked Rouse.

This time, though, Rouse's man was running. And the team of advisers that Rouse had built for Daschle would prove key at a time when many top Democratic operatives, veterans of the Clinton White House, were signing up for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Rouse personally recruited several Daschle veterans, including Pfeiffer; Hildebrand, who now manages Obama's operations in the early states such as Iowa; and Julianna Smoot, who directs the campaign's prodigious fundraising.

When Daschle was considering whom to support for president, Rouse recruited him, too, telling his old boss that they needed his endorsement early to show that Obama had the backing of some key Establishment figures. Daschle obliged, announcing his support for Obama in February; now, he has occasional dinners with the candidate to advise him on policy.

As the campaign heats up and the Senate continues to focus on Iraq, a key campaign issue, there is constant lobbying on all sides for Obama's time. Rouse, aware that the Senate's Democratic leaders often need the candidates in town to help them prevail on close votes, frequently wants him on Capitol Hill. Advisers in the early states argue that he should be in the places where the campaign is being waged, while the Chicago staff is wary of Obama skipping events by groups in the Democratic Party and leaving them feeling snubbed.

While Obama was in Southeast Washington giving a campaign speech on urban poverty last month, Rouse was imploring Gibbs to make sure that the senator didn't miss a vote that was happening across town -- the Democratic leadership needed Obama's vote to win. Obama, who has missed 59 votes this year, compared with Clinton's 11, did miss that vote, but because a Republican missed it too, the Democrats still won.

"On these tough votes," said one of Obama's top Senate aides, "he has to be here. There are votes you just can't miss."

Even with Obama increasingly absent, Rouse plays a major advisory role. In June, as aides worried that Obama's media operation wasn't responding quickly enough to the veteran Clinton team, Rouse helped engineer a shift in roles: Gibbs, who has worked with Obama since the 2004 Senate campaign, would travel with the candidate, while Pfeiffer would return from the road and help manage the media office in Chicago.

And Rouse continues to educate Obama on how to be an effective senator. Weeks before Obama announced in January that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, Rouse told his boss to meet with Edward M. Kennedy and Joseph I. Lieberman, two senators who were taking over committees on which Obama serves, to show that he still respected his more senior colleagues. He arrived with signed copies of his best-selling book "The Audacity of Hope" that they could give to others.

There have been limits, though, to Rouse's success at forging close ties between Obama and his Senate colleagues. In the race for senators' endorsements, Obama has received just one: that of his fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin.

Then again, even that may be a Rouse special. Durbin's chief of staff back when he was a congressman? Pete Rouse.


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