WASHINGTON — Sarah Simmons grew up in a Lenexa household where rarely a dinner went by that her family didn't chew over the issues of the day.
"We'd watch McNeil-Lehrer and have these very spirited conversations about what was going on," she said.
It was like living with two "armchair analysts," Simmons said. Her mother grew up in a liberal, blue-collar union household in Detroit. Her father was a small-business man and Main Street Republican who listened to Rush Limbaugh.
If the four Simmons children "wanted to be heard, you just had to push your way in," she said.
Simmons, 34, has never stopped pushing.
Now she's the director of strategy for John McCain's presidential campaign and at the nerve center for just about every move the Republican candidate makes.
"I went from band geek to numbers nerd," she said.
Now the end game of what has seemed like an endless campaign is finally here. Her agenda for the final weekend?
Deciding on last-minute television buys. Moving McCain and running mate Sarah Palin around like chess pieces on a shrinking board. Making sure Election Day volunteers are prepped and ready.
After that: "Head to Phoenix, make sure the plane is headed in the right direction and wait for the voting."
The political bug
Simmons got the Washington bug in 1989 when she was 14 and a freshman clarinet player in the Shawnee Mission Northwest High School band. The band performed at the inaugural parade for the first President Bush.
Taking in the grand sweep of the capital -- its broad avenues and massive monuments -- and the pomp of the day, the future Washington political hand thought, "Wow! What a great city!"
When it came time for college, where her older sister and brothers zigged, she zagged.
She turned down the University of Kansas, "even though I was like, 'Oh. I won't have KU basketball,"' and chose American University in Washington to study politics.
Her father, Bill Simmons, said she handled the difference between the cost of a public school and private school education by working and finding scholarships.
"She always knew what she wanted to do," he said. "She worked very hard at it."
Simmons finished with a master's degree in political science, steeped in statistics and academic theory, but uncertain of their relevance in the real world of campaigning.
She was in a hurry.
"I'm going to go work on campaigns, and I need to know how to make attack ads and put up yard signs," she thought at the time.
But then she started working for a prominent Republican polling and public affairs firm, Public Opinion Strategies. That's when she realized what all those dry statistics and theories could tell her about moving voters and winning elections.
Or in the current politicalspeak, "What kind of voters are going to be moved by Joe the plumber?" Simmons said.
All the right stops
She punched her ticket at all the right political stops. She worked local campaigns in Virginia and Wisconsin and did a stint at the Republican National Committee.
She held a White House post under Karl Rove, President Bush's former political guru, and worked with his former pollster, Matthew Dowd. That led to a top job on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 re-election campaign.
And that gave her entree to McCain.
"You could tell very early on that she has a presence about her," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies -- and himself a Mission, Kan., native.
"She is smart, she has a good, gut feel for politics. She stands by what she thinks. You respect people who have an opinion in this business."
Simmons thinks that you respect the other side, too.
Indeed, she advised a Democratic friend who had been offered a job by the Obama campaign to take it.
"The guy is fascinating," Simmons told her friend. "He's charming. He's attractive. He's a great speaker who's smart. He's going to transform your party. Anybody would be excited to work with him."
She views McCain similarly: "Another guy who throws the party on its ear a little bit."
Simmons knows firsthand that politics, especially at the presidential level, is a tough sport. Both sides push the boundaries. But she also knows that she's a hired gun and that at this level, winning is everything. But it can create dilemmas.
"I feel like I have mostly worked for very honorable people," she said. "You have to keep a balance."
Her compass is her sister, "a hard-core liberal, former Peace Corps volunteer," and her mother who "caucused for Hillary Clinton in Kansas."
"I don't run stuff by them," Simmons said, "but I do think in my head, 'Would I be able to win this argument with my mom?' "
Life after Tuesday
Simmons has been thinking about life after Tuesday. If McCain wins, she would love to work in the White House again. If not, she's been making a list.
A runner in high school with one Marine Corps Marathon to her credit, she'd like to do another. She crewed in college and hopes to get out on the river more. And dancing lessons would be fun.
Long-term? She hopes to have her own political strategy shop someday.
Simmons loves the scene near the end of "The War Room," the documentary account of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign, when the now-famous strategists talk about how it was the best thing they'd ever done.
"That is actually how you feel when you win and every time you do it," she said. "'This is the best thing you've ever done."'
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