- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2012

Blond, telegenic and tough as nails, Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s ubiquitous deputy campaign manager, isn’t afraid of a little made-for-TV mudslinging.

In recent days, Ms. Cutter, 43, has emerged as the face of the Obama campaign on cable news and YouTube videos, offering up crisp, cutting criticisms of Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s corporate career, his record on immigration, women’s contraception and health care reform, not to mention his connections to Wall Street and wealthy donors such as the Koch brothers.

Some Republicans said these criticisms went over the line.

As a 20-year veteran of national politics, having worked with Bill Clinton, Edward M. Kennedy and other high-profile Democrats, Ms. Cutter can sense moments in the campaign when there is blood in the water and it’s time to go for the jugular.

Last week, she came under intense partisan fire for suggesting that Mr. Romney may have committed a felony by having his name remain on Bain Capital’s SEC filings years after he said he ended active involvement with the private equity firm.

The remark has been the source of escalating acrimony between the Obama and Romney camps.

Mr. Romney has denied any wrongdoing and personally demanded an apology, but the Obama campaign insists that Ms. Cutter isn’t walking back her comments in any way.

“She raised the question about whether he was misleading the American people or misleading himself to the SEC,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told The Washington Times. “The only person who is walking anything back or has changed his tune is Mitt Romney, who is now saying that he was no longer involved in day-to-day operations” at Bain after 1999.

Either way, the damage had been done, with Ms. Cutter’s “felony” remark having gone viral on liberal and conservative blogs alike.

Learning from Clinton

Ms. Cutter can thank Mr. Clinton, an early political mentor and master of rapid response, for her aggressive, shoot-from-the-hip style, having served him as deputy communications director in the White House in the 1990s. But her abrasive style has proved a liability at times.

“She can be very tough and hard-charging. Once you agree on a plan, she is very good on making sure everybody abides by it,” said one longtime Democratic aide, who didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Others give her credit for keeping disparate Democratic factions focused. During the health care debate, Ms. Cutter served as Mr. Obama’s point woman on Capitol Hill, making sure everyone remained engaged and enthusiastic despite the firestorm of criticism against congressional Democrats at town-hall meetings across the country in the summer of 2010.

Stephanie was fired up and engaged, and that set the tone for everybody else,” said David Di Martino, a longtime Democratic operative. “She played a very important role in keeping the whole fight and the effort going and on message.”

Corralling Democrats, who usually aren’t known for their discipline in sticking to the party’s preferred message, and enforcing a consistent line of attack, can be a positive trait in a communications strategist, but the flip side is often failing to switch gears and react to developments or allow voices of dissent to be heard.

In a 2007 piece for Politico, Ms. Cutter outlined her “new lessons for flacks” as the parties were gearing up for the 2008 presidential battle. Among her “basic rules of the road:” the concept of “off-the-record” is “extinct”; leaks kill; “pay attention to the state you’re campaigning in”; and have your closing argument written before the campaign begins.

Comeback

Ms. Cutter has her fair share of detractors who still remember her tenure as communications director for John F. Kerry’s losing presidential bid in 2004.

In the end, the Kerry camp devolved, as so many failed campaigns do, into infighting and recriminations — and Ms. Cutter, with a reputation for being difficult and sometimes demeaning to reporters and colleagues alike, was the focus of a lot of the griping.

In the years since the Kerry campaign, her connections on Capitol Hill and in the Obama White House have helped revitalize her career and boost her reputation as one of Washington’s leading political players.

She served as a longtime adviser and spokeswoman for Kennedy, handing all of the communications strategy surrounding his battle with cancer and his work in the Senate. She also worked as a communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and in 2003, she served as communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

“She’s very tough but very effective,” said Jim Manley, a veteran of Democratic politics on Capitol Hill who also worked for Kennedy and Mr. Reid. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but she doesn’t make very many mistakes either.”

Mr. Obama enlisted Ms. Cutter’s help during the 2008 election, though she was relegated to the role of Michelle Obama’s chief of staff during the campaign. After Mr. Obama’s victory, however, she was back in the limelight, serving first as chief spokeswoman for the Obama-Biden transition effort, then as an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

In May 2009, she was given the high-pressure role of serving as an adviser to Mr. Obama on Supreme Court nominations and went on to manage all communication and outreach strategy for enacting the 2010 health care overhaul, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

Mr. Di Martino and Ms. Cutter both hail from Massachusetts, a state that often serves as the farm league for national Democratic politics. Ms. Cutter was born in Taunton, Mass., and raised in nearby Raynham, a blue-collar part of the state. She went to Smith College and then received a law degree from Georgetown University. In the years between the Kerry and Obama campaigns, she founded the Washington-based Cutter Media Group LLC, a private strategic communications firm.

Mr. Di Martino says she worked her way up on her own to her high-profile role.

“You really have to admire her tenacity,” he said. “She’s one of the hardest-working people in politics — no question. Her bosses have always known she’s going to follow through and she’s not going to let anything fall through the cracks.”