Don't let Steve Schale fool you, just because he looks like the kid who won the spelling bee, in wire-rimmed glasses and rumpled khakis. Or because Tallahassee is the biggest city he's ever lived in. Or because he lists Eagle Scout on his resume.
Recently tapped to lead Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Florida, Schale may be the savviest Democratic operative in the state.
He helped his beleaguered party do something it hadn't done in more than 20 years: pick up a seat in the Florida House. Under his steady hand, Democrats netted nine seats in the last two years, the biggest sweep in state history.
Statewide, the latest polls show Obama with a slight edge over Republican John McCain, foreshadowing a knock-down, drag-out fight in the nation's largest battleground state. The Republican party has already begun trying to undermine Obama among the state's Hispanic and Jewish voters, and it's easy to picture attack ads questioning his willingness to meet with hostile governments in Cuba and Iran.
Schale, 33, is a southern gentleman who hasn't been in the trenches for very long. But he'll likely have more money, staff and volunteers than McCain's team at his disposal -- "the largest and most comprehensive organization that my side of the aisle has ever seen in Florida,'' he said. His allies warn: don't let the nice-guy demeanor fool you.
"Steve does best when people take him for granted,'' said former state Rep. Doug Wiles of Jacksonville, who gave Schale his first job in politics. "I would never want to be on the other side of him in a campaign. He's very competitive, very focused and very driven.''