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Obama campaign manager goes for the jugular

President Barack Obama is introduced by campaign manager Jim Messina before he speaks at a campaign fundraising event at The Town Hall in New York, Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press/Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press

Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and was subsequently feted at a champagne fundraiser hosted by George Clooney. Mitt Romney was meanwhile outed as a bully for tormenting a fellow student while at prep school, then depicted as a heartless, job-sucking vampire in a campaign ad aired by his rival.

In its first strides, the Obama campaign has pulled off a coup, defining Mr. Romney on its own terms even before the Republican has officially secured his party's nomination. Behind the savvy political moves, glitzy ads and Hollywood parties lies a lanky, foul-mouthed, former long-distance runner who has managed, against all odds, to break inside the president's inner Chicago circle: Mr. Obama's new campaign manager, Jim Messina.

Raised in Boise, Idaho, Mr. Messina, 43, is now pulling the campaign strings from its Chicago headquarters, a sprawling office in a high-rise that overlooks the park where Mr. Obama delivered his presidential victory speech. Mr. Messina's appointment is an indication of the very different battle the incumbent will wage this time around.

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Mr. Obama initially rose to power by harnessing grassroots support for "hope and change" but those who know Mr. Messina say this campaign will be much more surgical and methodical. Mr. Messina keeps an Excel spreadsheet, for instance, of his political enemies. Mental tallies of electoral votes, rather than principles, are said to drive his political calculations. Some, however, worry he will alienate the same progressive constituencies within the Democratic Party that were so crucial to Mr. Obama's victory in 2008.

"He has an instinct to go for the jugular," said Pat Williams, a former Montana Democratic congressman who has known Mr. Messina for twenty years.

"Politics is a kid-glove game and occasionally Jim violates that. I think he's too quick to the trigger, but that's his style. Unfortunately the arena he's in is no-holds-barred on both sides. So he'll fit right in. ... For better or for worse, we need a guy like Jim," he added.

Known as a trouble-shooter, Mr. Messina was previously given the task of fixing a range of problems that cropped up for the White House. As deputy chief of staff – the same title once held by Karl Rove in George W. Bush's office – Mr. Messina explained away party crashers at a state dinner, concocted an exit-strategy to the war in Iraq and pressed health-care reform through a reluctant Congress.

Before that, he served as a long-time aide to U.S. Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the powerful Senate committee on finance. In Democratic circles, Mr. Baucus is a divisive figure, criticized by progressives for opposing gay rights and being seen as pro-business. He also has a track record of sparring with Canada over cross-border trade issues, such as softwood lumber and beef. To Mr. Messina, he is a mentor and father-figure.

"[Mr. Messina]delivered a lot of mail for Max. That was an extremely effective relationship and I think Max remains a pivotal person in his life," said Eric Feaver, president of the Montana teachers' union.

Even though he has worked for Mr. Obama since 2008, vaulting up the ranks in the West Wing, Mr. Messina was never a high-profile figure outside the White House like Rahm Emanuel or David Plouffe. The working relationship he has forged with Mr. Obama has never crossed over to friendship, even though there are filaments of similarity in their pasts. Mr. Messina was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet after his father left. Today, Mr. Messina apparently drives a black Porsche convertible.

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When he was in the fourth grade, he volunteered to represent Jimmy Carter in a mock election held as a classroom exercise. Even before graduating from the University of Montana, he worked in politics; in his senior year he helped the mayor of Missoula successfully win his bid for re-election. His supporters describe him as a skilled operative who plays hardball, within the rules.

"He's darned smart and has plenty of experience. He's also charming and engaging. Funny and witty as hell. He likes to drop the F-word at every opportunity," said Mr. Feaver.

Not everyone agrees. Mr. Messina's tendency to play to the centre of the American political spectrum is less than inspiring to progressives within his party. To them, he is an example of everything Mr. Obama was supposed to stand against: a Washington insider who works business and Hollywood connections and doesn't care much about supporters at the base.

Gay rights was one area in particular where Mr. Messina has clashed with Mr. Obama's supporters. While he served as a liaison to the gay-rights community, the White House was seen as dragging its feet in repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military, which was supposed to be a priority. Even before that, when Mr. Messina was working state-level elections in Montana, a former colleague recalls him blaming the Democrats' stance on gay rights for costing them seats in the conservative state. Mr. Messina denied it at the time.

"Messina is of that mould where he triangulates various interest to win votes. I think it treads on the edges of ethics," said Ken Toole, a former Democratic state senator and public-service commissioner in Montana.

"He's very much a product of the Washington culture he grew up in and it's a corrupt culture. Frankly I think the Jim Messinas of the world are exactly what's wrong with the Democratic Party in the United States," he said.

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Despite Mr. Messina's mixed track record on gay rights, Mr. Toole believes Mr. Messina was behind Mr. Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage last week, because it was the politically savvy thing to do.

"With Jim, it's all a political calculation. If Jim thought it was the smart thing to do to advocate mandatory gay marriage for all people in the United States, he'd advocate for it," Mr. Toole said.

But when it comes to Mr. Messina, even his critics give him credit.

Asked whether he believes Mr. Messina will help deliver his boss a second term, Mr. Toole is unequivocal: "Yes. He's not much different than most people in Washington except for one thing. He's better at it than most of them."

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