WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a rare moment of bipartisanship in Washington: Both parties say they're enjoying the performance of the new Democratic Party chairwoman.
In Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Republicans say they see a gaffe-prone attack dog emerging. Democrats say that, a few missteps aside, the Florida congresswoman is growing into her role well, galvanizing fundraising and pumping up the party's liberal base.
How well and how quickly Wasserman Schultz adjusts to her new position will be an important factor in President Barack Obama's re-election effort.
In any presidential year, the incumbent party's chairman is on the front line every day, carrying the president's message, making sharp contrasts that a president likes to avoid in an effort to appear above the fray. Apart from first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, few are more likely to serve as a more prominent surrogate in the run-up to 2012 than Wasserman Schultz.
This week alone, Wasserman Schultz, , who took over the Democratic National Committee from former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine in April, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," traveled to Florida for a fundraiser with the president and will speak Friday to liberal activists at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis. Appearing with Wasserman Schultz at the fundraiser in Miami on Monday, Obama cheerily gave his new chairwoman a vote of confidence.
"You want Debbie on your side," Obama told the audience. "She's a mom, she's got that cute smile and all that, but she is tough. Don't mess with Debbie."
Republicans, though, have been happy to mess with Debbie, highlighting her mistakes and amplifying remarks they say don't befit a party chairwoman.
Wasserman Schultz has been forced to walk back a comparison of efforts in several states to require identification to vote to Jim Crow-era laws. She also has been criticized by Republicans, and rapped in several fact-checks, for her characterizations of Republican plans to restructure Medicare.
Wasserman Schultz recently criticized Republican candidates for opposing the auto bailouts and said, "If it were up to the candidates running for president on the Republican side, we would be driving foreign cars." Then the Republican National Committee delighted conservative blogs by circulating her registration for a Japanese-made vehicle.
She delayed weighing in as the party leader on the scandal that embroiled Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., which knocked Democrats in Congress off message on economic issues, and waited until a coordinated effort was under way before calling on Weiner to resign his seat.
"I think she got a big promotion that she wasn't ready for," said Jeff Berkowitz, a Republican strategist who has worked for the RNC under several chairmen. "There is a huge leap from representing a small liberal district in Florida to all of the sudden being the national spokesman for a major political party."
Wasserman Schultz is hardly the only national party leader to be taken to task by the opposition. Former GOP chairman Michael Steele faced intense criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike after a two-year tenure marked by a series of verbal missteps and chronic financial woes. But Democrats say there's no comparison.
David Axelrod, a top strategist for Obama's re-election campaign, said Wasserman Schultz has inspired rank-and-file Democrats. He acknowledged there may be some growing pains for her, but he brushed off criticism that she has stumbled.
"There isn't anybody in this business who bats a thousand, particularly when you do the volume of things she does," Axelrod said. "To the degree that there've been times where she chose her words in ways she thinks weren't right, she's quick to correct that."
A mother of three and a breast cancer survivor, Wasserman Schultz, 44, has represented a reliably Democratic Fort Lauderdale-area district for four terms. Along the way she has earned a reputation as a workhorse and as an outspoken liberal happy to duke it out on TV with her GOP counterparts.
Her media savvy is part of what propelled to her new post, beating out former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland for the post. But Republicans say she is struggling to make the adjustment from being an individual member of Congress to being a spokeswoman for her party.
"We're in an intense 2012 cycle, and the glare and the pressure will only get tougher," said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant and adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "It's fair to say she's had a rocky start."
But Democrats say Wasserman Schultz is already excelling at the other jobs of chairman, including growing the party.
They point to several off-the-radar achievements: She has given the president a prominent spokeswoman with a base in Florida, a state that will be critical in 2012. As a Jew and strong advocate for Israel, she provides a bulwark for Obama against Republican efforts to paint him as anti-Israel. And Democrats also note that she is proving herself as a fundraiser and has been particularly adept at bringing into the fold donors to Bill and Hillary Clinton who had been wary of supporting Obama. She supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Wasserman Schultz's prominence is something of a contrast to her Republican counterpart, RNC chairman Reince Preibus, who has limited himself to a handful of media appearances, including a debate with Wasserman Schultz on NBC last week. The two traded barbs about the economy, Medicare and other topics — and both were criticized afterward by nonpartisan fact-checkers.
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