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Maryland's Chris Van Hollen works to keep the House in Democrats' hands

He's also in search of something he has lost: the adoration of the American people.

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"I was taken through the Khyber Pass as a toddler," said Van Hollen, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in India and Turkey.

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Van Hollen, who received his master's from the Kennedy School at Harvard, gets excited discussing the minutiae of Afghanistan policy. He served as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and describes himself as a "wonk." None of those qualifications got him this position in the leadership. It's the acute ambition and serrated political instincts behind the polite veneer that Democrats are counting on.

"Don't be mistaken; he's gracious, he comes from a family of diplomats but he has a strong understanding of what needs to be done and how to implement it," said Pelosi, whose job as speaker of the House is entrusted to Van Hollen. "His calm and steady hand is putting us in the best possible position as we go forward."

Asked if he is more relaxed than Emanuel, Pelosi bristled, "My God, no."

Van Hollen came to the House in 2003 -- first by overcoming the Kennedy clan in primary opponent Mark K. Shriver and then taking out longtime Republican representative Constance A. Morella. In the House, he has steadily, and quietly, worked his way up, taking a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and becoming a familiar face on Sunday talk shows.

In exchange for another tour of duty as chairman, Van Hollen received the leadership position of assistant to the speaker of the House, though he joked that "I need to have my head checked" for accepting the job.

But with expectations so abysmal, the upside is enormous for Van Hollen. Keeping the House would result in his beatification in the party. "It's obvious that if he maintains control, and I think we will," Clyburn said, "people will consider that a monumental accomplishment."

After offering the requisite bullishness on Democratic prospects, Van Hollen begrudgingly entertained the likelihood that the House will be lost, and lost on his watch.

"My goal is that the day after the election, to look back and say that 'We did everything we could to make sure that we kept the maximum number of seats,' " Van Hollen said, adding, "I'm confident that people know we're doing everything possible."

According to former congressman and ex-National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Thomas Reynolds -- who, like Van Hollen, had a wildly successful first cycle in 2004, only to be followed by a historic drubbing two years later -- the Democrat should not expect peace of mind after the fact.

"It is an empty feeling that the majority didn't hold, and it's lost," said Reynolds, who added that he liked to think he saved his party as many as 20 seats. He now works for a lobbying firm in Rochester, N.Y. "It's as much the ultimate of not succeeding as any contest you haven't succeeded in."

A numbers man

Everywhere Van Hollen goes, he lugs around a ratty yellow North Face bag. Inside are binders stuffed with pie charts about voter preferences, information about the activities of his competitors at the NRCC and columns of budgeting data. In September, the DCCC outraised its Republican counterpart $15.9 million to $11.2 million. By the end of the election, the DCCC expects to have spent well over $60 million on television ads and $20 million on get out the vote operations.


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