RALEIGH, N.C. — Sitting on the sunny patio of a coffee shop last weekend, Averell "Ace" Smith hardly seemed the kind of guy to strike fear into a politician's heart.
The 49-year-old California political operative -- who helped Hillary Rodham Clinton to victories in the California and Texas Democratic presidential primaries and is now running her North Carolina operation -- was a study in bland: beige polo shirt, beige slacks, bright blue eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses, a fringe of gray hair around a pink scalp.
Yet people -- many of them fellow Democrats -- frequently use melodramatic imagery to describe him.
"I believe that every life lesson in politics can be extrapolated from 'The Godfather,' " said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and friend of Smith's who has worked for the Clintons.
"Some people are Fredos; at game time they disappear. There are Sonnys, who yell and scream. . . . The most effective ones are the Michael Corleones. Very quiet, they know under which rib to insert the knife. . . . Ace is a Michael Corleone."
The next round of the seemingly interminable quest for the Democratic nomination takes place Tuesday, when Indiana and North Carolina vote. They are the first contests since April 22, when Clinton beat Barack Obama in Pennsylvania.
The race is close in Indiana. In North Carolina, which has a sizable African American electorate, polls have shown Obama ahead, but Clinton has been gaining support over the last week. The fact that the Clinton campaign stationed Smith here signals how crucial the state is to her; she intends to fight for every vote.
"Everyone knew that Pennsylvania was essentially going to be a walk for Clinton and that the whole thing would come down to Indiana and North Carolina," said Joe Trippi, a top advisor to former presidential candidate John Edwards. "Guess where Ace Smith is? I don't think that's an accident."
If Smith can help Clinton seriously narrow Obama's margin of victory -- or even beat him -- in the Tar Heel State, the New York senator's argument that she is the more electable of the two will gain considerable strength.
A victory would also burnish Smith's reputation as a top-notch strategist and perhaps change his image as a fearsome practitioner of a dark political art: opposition research.
Ben Austin, a Democratic political consultant who worked in the Clinton White House and now supports Obama, put it this way: "He is one of the few balding, bespectacled guys who I wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley."
But not all Democrats are fans. "It's admirable if you can lie and get away with it," said Kam Kuwata, a consultant to former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, who ran against Smith client Antonio Villaraigosa twice -- successfully in 2001, unsuccessfully in 2005.
And Republicans? Attorney Ken Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist, is a reluctant admirer. He faced off with Smith in 2006 when a client, former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, lost to Smith client and former Gov. Jerry Brown for California attorney general. "He does what he has to do," Khachigian said. "He'll be relentless and tough. He fits right in with the Clinton war machine."
Khachigian figured in Smith's biggest political heartbreak. In 1990, Smith was deeply involved in the campaign of his father, longtime San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith, who ran against Dan Lungren for state attorney general. Smith won on election day but lost two weeks later when absentee ballots barely put Lungren over the top.
Even now, Ace Smith has a hard time discussing it: "I'll tell you something. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for President Clinton. . . . I mean, if you see someone criticizing, attacking your father, in my case, or his wife, in his case, you just want to slug 'em."
Nevertheless, he said, "you cannot run campaigns if you can't remain calm in the face of adversity and bad polls. The best thing is to be as dispassionate as possible."
Up and down the state of California, political reporters have Ace Smith stories. They speak of heavy boxes landing on their desks, ammunition culled from public records that Smith hopes will shape the campaign narrative.
The topic might be voting records, inflated resume claims, long-ago brushes with the law or questionable business dealings. Not infrequently, stories ensue. Reporters say he is charming, helpful, tenacious and not averse to going over their heads to editors in an attempt to shape a story -- or kill one if he senses it is going to make a client look bad.
When The Times reported in 2006 that Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo -- then running for attorney general -- falsely claimed to have played professional football in Canada, Smith -- representing Democratic primary rival Brown -- made sure reporters had copies of the team roster for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In 2005, working for Villaraigosa, he figured, correctly, that a minor billing scandal in the DWP would tar then-Mayor Hahn as a do-nothing who allowed corruption to flourish.