Suddenly, in the middle of the conference call, he's anxious to get on the phone. "I gotta deal with a big problem," he says to the congressmen on the line. He's learned that Republicans are running a TV ad against his candidate Mike Arcuri, a district attorney in upstate New York, claiming that Arcuri billed taxpayers for a call to a phone-sex hotline. In truth, it was an aide to Arcuri who made the call, and he had meant to dial the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, whose phone number happens to be the same as the phone-sex line's but with a different area code. The $1.25 call showed up on Arcuri's bill, which was discovered by GOP research and handed over to Republican admakers.
Rahm is now on the phone screaming at his political director, Sean Sweeney, ordering him to immediately send a letter to every TV station in the district demanding the ad be pulled. "I want the lawyers on the phone before the letter's out! What we always do is wait for the letter, and it goes through seven edits. I've now known for an hour! Is the letter at the station?" It's Friday morning. If they don't get the ad pulled today, it will air through the weekend, perhaps costing their candidate the race. Conversely, if they get it pulled, they could turn it into a devastating story about Republican overreach. Rahm wants a conference call with the local press so the aide who dialed the wrong number can explain the facts. Once that's done, they have to go after Arcuri's opponent. "Then we have to eviscerate him!" he yells. "Okay?"
The calls go on like this forever. "Al Quinlan, please," Rahm says, ringing up one of his pollsters, "and please don't leave me on hold for an hour!" He asks Quinlan about New York, where Tom Reynolds has become vulnerable in the wake of the Foley scandal. This race is about more than just picking up a seat, though. Reynolds is the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the equivalent of the DCCC, so just pinning him down in a tough race has strategic value. In previous cycles, there was an understanding that the heads of the two campaigns wouldn't go after each other, but Rahm doesn't play by those rules. "What's Reynolds's negatives?" he asks. "What's his job approval? If you were going to hit him with a hammer, which is what we're about to do today, what would you hit him with?" (Despite Rahm's efforts, Reynolds will hang on to win his race.)
He hangs up the phone, exhales through gritted teeth, and exclaims, "Man, my stomach is [expletive] killing me." Every new call or BlackBerry message brings a new crisis or opportunity. A poll in a conservative Kansas district shows that Republican Jim Ryun is vulnerable. Should they spend money there? A Kentucky candidate calls and begs Rahm's assistant for help. No way—the guy's worth $12 million.
All decisions come back to money. We go down the street for lunch at a chic downtown restaurant. In between calls, Rahm explains why his friends like Carville and Begala have been telling reporters that the Democrats are blowing it. "They don't think there's enough money," he says. "I only have a million-two left." Above our heads, a plasma TV plays an attack ad Lapp created about Florida representative Clay Shaw. "I'm happy where we are, but it's hard to make these choices," Rahm goes on. "We could use 5 to 7 million more."