WASHINGTON — Mary Beth Cahill is not often mentioned on the Internet's endless political blogs and is hardly a fixture on talk radio.
But the 49-year-old native of Dorchester, Mass., who grew up the oldest of six children of working-class Irish parents, has quietly become the behind-the-scenes star of the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.
In November, when she was brought in to take over John F. Kerry's campaign, the Massachusetts senator's presidential bid was failing. Today, Kerry is the frontrunner. And insiders are wondering whether Cahill might take him all the way to the White House.
"She's done an absolutely superb job," said political strategist Jim Jordan, the man Kerry fired to make room for Cahill. "She's a fine manager. It was a brilliant hire."
The only female campaign manager in the presidential field, Cahill shuns the spotlight, giving interviews only when required. She is described by friends as no-nonsense, focused and smart, not a screamer in the James Carville mode but a tough fighter.
"She's one of the smartest people I've ever met," said Karin Johanson, who worked with Cahill at Emily's List, the activist group that backs pro-choice female candidates. "She's very good at what she does. She likes to win."
Cahill has a reputation not just for winning but for taking campaigns considered long-shots and turning them into victors. In 1986, when conventional wisdom held that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) would face the challenge of his life from former Gov. Richard Snelling, Cahill organized in every district of Vermont, engendering support for Leahy that proved formidable.
"The race looked like it was going to be extremely tough," said John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, who as a Leahy strategist recruited Cahill to the job. "She built a machine from the ground up in every town and every county. It ended up putting the race away early."
Cahill is widely credited with stopping the hemorrhaging of the Kerry campaign, ending the internecine battles between media consultants, campaign strategists and schedulers.
"Since she's come on, there's been no back biting, no second-guessing," said one political operative supporting another campaign. "She runs a very tight ship. And she doesn't try to take credit."
Not everyone is convinced Cahill deserves all the credit for righting the Kerry campaign, noting that she is more of a manager than a strategist. The tactic of emphasizing Kerry's experience and electability was in place before she arrived.
"She's given day-to-day direction but it's not like she reinvented the wheel," said one observer. "She ended the staff revolt."
Acquaintances often mention loyalty when talking about Cahill -- her own loyalty to liberal Democratic causes, their loyalty to her. "In Massachusetts, loyalty is in the DNA," said Michael Powell, chief of staff to former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.). "There's a deep sense of loyalty, almost bordering on tribalism."
One veteran of that Leahy campaign in 1986 recalls that about a month before the election, professional politicos loyal to Cahill just started showing up in Vermont. "We called them the Hessians," he said. "It was just a professional band of followers who showed up because of Mary Beth."
Joe Solmonese, chief of staff at Emily's List, described a legion of political activists who troop after Cahill. "I've followed her around the country for a lot of years," he said. "I worked for Barney Frank, I followed her to Oregon to work for Les AuCoin [the congressman who lost his 1992 Senate bid to Sen. Bob Packwood], I followed her to work at Emily's List. She's a great mentor. When you work for her, you learn a great deal."
With Ellen Malcolm, she helped make Emily's List a more muscular organization -- empowering women as voters and candidates.
One such candidate was Grace F. Napolitano, a state assemblywoman from Norwalk who was making her first run for Congress in 1998 against the incumbent's son-in-law and chief of staff. Napolitano met with Cahill, who made a quick decision to reopen the Emily's List contributor mailing -- then at the printers -- and add the Norwalk race to the appeal.
"I'll always be grateful to her," said Rep. Napolitano. "She took action immediately."
Cahill worked in the Clinton White House, steering public liaison with all the interest groups that ignite Democratic Party politics. For Cahill, they were familiar voting blocs, the same ones she had used to conduct reelection campaigns for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Claiborne Pell, the former Rhode Island senator who faced Rep. Claudine Schneider. The latter was expected to be the toughest race of Pell's career, but he won easily.