WASHINGTON — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was running late, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity.
In a room filled with congressional colleagues, the Florida Democrat called out Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott for "gutting" a crime unit that targets online predators, a move she called "hard to grasp and irresponsible."
She held her ground even as Scott told her she was misinformed, asking him to have his staff provide her with details "to show me where I'm incorrect."
It was vintage Wasserman Schultz: aggressive, determined and direct.
Now the hard-charging 44-year-old, a Democratic rising star since she was elected at age 26 to the Florida state House of Representatives, is poised for her biggest role yet: President Barack Obama's choice to head the Democratic National Committee, a crucial part of his efforts to win another term. The one-time congressional staffer will be the third woman to hold the post when the DNC meets Wednesday to ratify Obama's decision.
Democratic strategists say Wasserman Schultz relishes going toe to toe with Republicans on issues she's passionate about, a factor that attracted the White House as it preps for a campaign that promises to be a bruiser.
"The fact that she's tough and doesn't back down is a really important strength that's going to be needed," said Karen Finney, a former national spokeswoman for the DNC. "This is not going to be an easy battle."
Wasserman Schultz chalks up her selection to a "range of skills and attributes that I think will be complementary to our needs."
"Florida is a hugely important state; women are hugely important to our success," she told McClatchy in an interview. "I'm a young mom, a good fundraiser and I can put a sentence together."
Just as important are Wasserman Schultz's doggedness, her comfort with the television camera and, as a lively liberal, her ability to re-energize part of the Democratic base that's been frustrated with Obama and stayed home in 2010.
Wasserman Schultz acknowledged that grass-roots outreach and interaction with party activists will be vital to the campaign.
"It's a priority to make sure we're reaching out to different constituencies, different groups and making sure they're well informed and engaged," she said, noting that she knocked on 25,000 doors during her first congressional campaign. "It'll be my job to make sure people feel a part of the excitement of re-electing the president and Democrats up and down the ballot."
Republicans salivated over Wasserman Schultz's selection, suggesting that she's too polarizing for television and too left of center to attract the moderate voters Obama will need to win a second term.
The conservative magazine Human Events welcomed her ascension by calling her a "hard-core leftie" and noting she'd earned a zero rating from the American Conservative Union. Some have questioned how she'll play in the moderate districts that Obama won in 2008, but that House Republicans picked back up in 2010.
"The White House must have made up its mind that it's going to try to run to the center, but it needs to keep the activist base at bay and supportive and so they figure the DNC will be the place to do it," ACU Chairman Al Cardenas said. He called Wasserman Schultz "quite a departure" from outgoing DNC Chair Tim Kaine, a centrist former Virginia governor who-s leaving the post to run for an open Senate seat in Virginia.
But Cardenas, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman who' s known Wasserman Schultz for decades, said he'd caution fellow Republicans not to underestimate her ability to mobilize party activists.
"She's going to be a formidable leader for that liberal base of the Democratic Party, and we need to understand that," Cardenas said.
That Wasserman Schultz finds herself trusted with delivering Obama's message is a feat in itself: She was a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton during the protracted 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
But Wasserman Schultz earned the Obama campaign's admiration when — days before the last primary — she began calling for Clinton supporters to rally around Obama even as others waited for Clinton to make it official.
"She did it without anyone calling, without anyone prodding," said Kirk Wagar, a top Obama and DNC fundraiser. "She dug in and didn't let go because it was the right thing to do for the party she cared about."
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who led Obama's Florida campaign, credits Wasserman Schultz with "putting the family back together again" after the bitter primary.
"She went door to door," Schale said. "She's not just top line, 'I'll go on TV.' She rolled up her sleeves and went and talked about this guy one person at a time, and it made a huge difference."
She was rewarded with a high-profile role seconding Obama's nomination at the Democratic convention in Denver and a starring role in the spin room for the vice presidential debate, suggesting that Sarah Palin was "not ready for prime time."
Wasserman Schultz's profile was further enhanced when she revealed in 2009 that she'd secretly battled breast cancer while campaigning across the country for Democratic candidates.
She was in the hospital room of her close friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when the Arizona Democrat first opened her eyes after she was wounded in a January shooting that left six people dead, including a member of her staff. Wasserman Schultz has been helping to keep Giffords' Washington office open while the congresswoman recovers in Houston.
During the recent congressional recess — and what could be her last break before the presidential election — Wasserman Schultz hung out with her husband, Steve, and their three children, four dogs and a cat at home, but she also managed some mad multitasking: headlining a news conference that called for closing the gun show background-check loophole and attending a town hall meeting with constituents, a meeting with Holocaust survivors and her annual congressional arts competition awards ceremony. She even made a trip to Oregon to attend a fellow member's luncheon, tweeting a picture of herself and Rep. Earl Blumenauer at Portland's Voodoo Doughnut.
"If you want something done," said Wasserman Schultz, who campaigned in 52 congressional districts in 25 states in 2010, "You give it to a busy person."
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