When the old boy's club kicked into gear in east Los Angeles in 1998, Mary Beth Cahill, then executive director of Emily's List, took action. Nine-term Representative Esteban Edward Torres announced he was retiring from his seat in a safe Democratic district just two days before the filing deadline for candidates. The heir apparent to his spot was none other than his chief of staff, Jamie Casso, who also happened to be married to his daughter. By retiring so late, Torres was making it hard for any other challenger to jump into the fray.

But where others saw a problem, Cahill saw an opportunity. Grace Napolitano, a state assembly member, former Norwalk mayor, and mother of five, was also interested in running. She was underfinanced, though, and had neither a campaign team nor a strategy on such short notice. So Emily's List, the political action committee for pro-choice women, swung into action. The group had already sent its fund-raising mailer, listing candidates it backed for that election cycle, to a printer. But Cahill stopped the production and made sure that Napolitano's name was added. Emily's List helped Napolitano pull together the team and the plan she'd need to fight for the seat, and the group became her single largest donor, giving her $20,600 over the course of the election cycle and helping to steer a total of $49,362 her way in donations from women. It made the critical difference, and Napolitano won her primary -- by 618 votes.

"What Mary Beth was so good at here was looking at a Democratic primary field and being able to see a winner," says Joe Solmonese, chief of staff at Emily's List and a close colleague of Cahill's during her tenure there from 1993 to 1998. Emily's List also helped Democratic Representatives Juanita Millender-McDonald of California and Diana DeGette of Colorado win in 1996, and California's Zoe Lofgren in 1994. "Those are great examples of tough primary fights where Mary Beth Cahill looked at those races and said, 'She's going to be the nominee and we have to help her get there,'" says Solmonese. "I think that Mary Beth's great strength is her ability to look at the same situation that everyone else is looking at and to see it in a different way."

In November 2003, Cahill looked at John Kerry's struggling campaign and saw something others didn't. Outflanked by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Massachusetts senator was trailing in all the polls, including a staggering 30-point gap in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, the very mention of which still makes Cahill grimace and shake her head. Fund raising was at a standstill. Political professionals and pundits across the country had written Kerry off, and The New Republic, which wrote five editorials arguing the case for different candidates in its January 19 endorsement issue, couldn't even find a writer to make the case for Kerry.

But when Kerry called Cahill on a Friday night in November and told her he was planning to make some changes in his campaign and wanted her to come onboard, she didn't hesitate. "I always thought Kerry was going to be the nominee, which was a cause of derision among my family and friends," says Cahill, sitting in her corner office at the campaign's new headquarters just two blocks from the White House. A white orchid bloom jauntily curves over her desk, and outside her office door junior staffers scarf up cookies in a welcome basket from the nearby St. Regis Hotel. "There was a clear reason John Kerry" -- he is always "John Kerry," never "Kerry" or "John" -- "was the front-runner early last year. ... That kind of got lost in the fog for a while, but he still had all of these strengths as a person, as a candidate, as a possible nominee, and they just needed to come back to the fore."

After Kerry called, Cahill talked to her husband, lobbyist Steve Champlin, and her employer, Senator Ted Kennedy, for whom she'd spent two years as chief of staff. They gave the endeavor their blessings; on Monday, she was the new Kerry campaign manager.

"When she told me she was going to work for John Kerry, I said, 'Really?' and she said, 'Well, John Kerry is going to be the Democratic nominee,'" recalls Solmonese. "Most people might have said, 'Mary Beth, I think you're crazy,' but I said 'Gee, that's exciting, John Kerry is going to be the nominee,' because I've been down this road a lot with her. And I had actually supported John Kerry and given John Kerry money, so I said, 'Gee, that's nice to know, because now I think it might actually happen.'"

Cahill, 49, is one of the first generation of female political consultants. The eldest of six children from a large, politically active Irish Catholic family in Framingham, Massachusetts, Cahill imbibed politics at the dinner table as something that was a part of everyday life. After graduating from Boston's Catholic liberal arts school Emmanuel College, which at the time admitted only women, she began her political career in 1976 as a receptionist and caseworker in the Boston office of a politician whom a youthful John Kerry briefly considered running against -- Jesuit priest and former Representative Robert Drinan.

Representative Barney Frank has known Cahill since she helped elect him to office as Drinan's successor in 1980. "Every month you just gave her more responsibility because she was so good," recalls Frank. "In the '80s, when we had even more sex discrimination than we have today, she was one of the most highly regarded political professionals. Smart. Firm without being belligerent. Decisive. Relatively calm in moments of stress. Not just smart, but a very good presence -- people liked being with her."

Yet by the mid-'80s, Cahill was still one of the best-kept secrets in Boston politics, working as the personnel director for Governor Michael Dukakis. After leaving Frank, Cahill also worked for Representative Ed Markey and former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn before trying her hand at bigger races in the late '80s and early '90s. In 1986 she orchestrated the come-from-behind victory of incumbent Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy against a phenomenally popular challenger, four-term Governor Richard Snelling, and in 1990, managed Senator Claiborne Pell's hotly contested final race in Rhode Island.

At Emily's List, Cahill helped elect some of the most important new southern Democrats, Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, then went to the Clinton White House for a two-year stint as director of the office of public liaison. After this, Cahill eschewed the revolving door's promise of a lucrative private-sector job and returned to the Boston fold as Kennedy's chief of staff.

"I think it's pretty telling for John Kerry," says Karen White, Cahill's successor at Emily's List. "Of the major Democratic candidates, John Kerry had the only woman running his race. She's only the third to do so." The first woman to run a presidential general-election campaign was Susan Estrich for Dukakis in 1988; the second was Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign after Gore parted ways with his first manager in October 1999. (In an example of just how insular the world of political consulting is -- and of the limits to female solidarity -- Estrich actually fired Brazile from the Dukakis campaign in 1988, after Brazile publicly suggested that George Bush Senior was having an extramarital romance.) Brazile's tenure as Gore's manager had rocky moments, thanks to her penchant for making controversial public statements, and she developed a reputation for being more of a talking head and big-picture strategist than a detail-oriented manager.

Cahill, in contrast, has avoided publicity and has done little traveling with her candidate. Instead, she has stayed in the Washington campaign headquarters, located until mid-March in a packed-to-the-rafters four-story townhouse on Capitol Hill, and quietly developed a reputation as a pragmatic, decisive manager who keeps things flowing smoothly, puts the right people in the right positions, and lets the staffers do their jobs. She is a woman so relentlessly practical and down to earth that when she gardens, one of her few forms of relaxation, she grows the herbs and vegetables and leaves the tending of flowers to her husband.

Cahill's influence on the Kerry campaign was discernable immediately, in ways both large and small. Kerry began to sport a new, shorter haircut (which Cahill insists she had nothing to do with) and stopped hopping on motorcycles at campaign appearances while wearing penny loafers. At Cahill's urging, the campaign did more to emphasize the candidate's war-hero past. Kerry debuted a new, tougher stump speech at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner on November 15. A staff that had been riven by arguments on strategy -- and fights between the Washington office, led by Jordan, and Kerry's longtime Boston associates -- began to gel under her leadership. Cahill's implacable belief in her candidate began to radiate out from the campaign as a new confidence; press releases and letters to supporters developed a new tightness and fierceness to them. Cahill removed Kerry from direct involvement in the daily back and forth of the campaign's decision-making processes and created a firm structure that freed him up to be the candidate, and only the candidate. "We discuss a strategy, decide on it, and then we execute," says Cahill. The velocity of the primary cycle was such that revisiting decisions after the fact -- instead of enacting them -- could mean the difference between winning and losing.

Most important of all, though, Cahill decided that the campaign had to focus on beating Dean in Iowa if Kerry was ever going to recover in New Hampshire. To outsiders, it seemed like a huge gamble. But to Cahill, it was the only way forward. "We always thought that the path to New Hampshire lay through Iowa," says Cahill. "We had to convincingly win Iowa." And to do that, the campaign needed more money than it was able to raise on its own. Kerry was going to have to dip into his personal fortune, mortgaging his half of his Louisburg Square mansion to give the campaign a $6.4 million loan. He spent so much time in Iowa that, by the time the caucuses rolled around, he'd racked up more days there than any other candidate. He didn't advertise in states that voted in February, nor did he visit them.

In a campaign that had been divided between Boston and Washington camps, Cahill finally gave the Bostonians their due, calling on longtime associates and individuals who had known Kerry for decades. Boston-raised whiz Michael Whouley, Gore's Iowa field director, was called in to take over the Iowa operation, and Stephanie Cutter, Kennedy's former press secretary, was drafted as Kerry's new spokeswoman. Cahill also brought on Michael Meehan, Kerry's 1996 Senate press secretary, to work with the media, and Chad Clanton, the Michigan press secretary for Gore in 2000, to do rapid response to attacks from other candidates. After Iowa, Cahill quickly scooped up Dick Gephardt's former chief of staff, Steve Elmendorf, a friend of hers from their time working for congressional leaders, and former Gephardt press secretary Kim Molstre.

Through it all, Cahill steered clear of the limelight. While Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi regaled reporters with stories and spin at the Hotel Fort Des Moines' Chequers Lounge until 2 a.m. the weekend before the caucuses, Cahill was nowhere to be seen. Dean's troops wore highly visible orange hats, while Kerry's team whitewashed its picture windows so staffers couldn't be seen from the street.

The campaign continued to fight hard right through Super Tuesday. When John Edwards put up $270,000 worth of television ads in Ohio and Georgia, the two most hotly contested of the 10 Super Tuesday states, the Friday before the vote, the Kerry campaign could have let it pass, knowing that wins in the eight other states were assured. But the Kerry team responded by buying $1.5 million in the same media markets starting that Monday morning. "If that was going to be the contested ground," says Cahill, "we were going to win it."

Yet as Kerry made history with one of the most stunning political turnarounds in presidential politics, another historical first passed with little note. Not only was the Kerry campaign the only one of the eight Democratic teams with a male candidate to have a female campaign manager, he is now also the first major-party nominee in presidential history to have a female campaign manager, press secretary, policy director, and campaign chair. "You really know the glass ceiling has been shattered when John Kerry replaces his press secretary and campaign manager in the same day and appoints two women and nobody says anything," says Ann Lewis, national chair of the Democratic National Committee's Women's Vote Center (and Barney Frank's sister).

Besides Cahill and Cutter, there is former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, the chair of Kerry's campaign since September 23 and a candidate Cahill backed while at Emily's List. Kerry's policy director, Sarah Bianchi, 31, is a five-year veteran of the Clinton White House, where she worked for Bruce Reed on the Domestic Policy Council and later served as the Gore campaign's deputy director for policy. She then spent the next three years working for the Democratic Leadership Council, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and -- of course -- with Kennedy as a Senate staffer.

As steep a climb as the nomination battle was, though, it will be little compared with the challenges facing Kerry in the months ahead. After the long pre-primary battle, Kerry's major competitor, Dean, collapsed so quickly -- and his other main competitor, Edwards, chose to run so mild a campaign -- that Kerry emerged from the primary season largely unscathed, and also a little bit untested. Even rank-and-file Democrats know little about him, surveys show, and George W. Bush's fund-raising advantage at the end of the primary season was an astonishing 100 to 1.

Now, as Bush takes on Kerry early and aggressively, Cahill finds herself going toe to toe with the awesomely ruthless Karl Rove and his minions in a battle to define Kerry first. Is she up to the task of being the Democratic counterpart to Rove? "I don't think John Kerry needs a Karl Rove," Cahill insists. "This is very much a collaborative process, where everybody brings their very different talents ... . It's not one person."

That said, Cahill is expecting that Bush's weak showing in the early spring polls was only a temporary state of affairs. "He'll get it back," she says with quiet certainty. "He has a lot of money. There is an enormous Republican echo chamber on the president that reverberates with his message. And they'll do almost anything to win." The battle will be hard fought in a "50-50 electorate," she says, "and I think that we will be relentless and we will be strong and we will be prepared for what's coming at us. And you know John Kerry welcomes this fight, any time."

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