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"I kept raising my hand and saying 'Do not give up on North Carolina. Send us your best and your brightest, please,’" remembers Thompson, who's been involved in the state's political scene for years.

Later, when Thompson heard Averell "Ace" Smith was coming to town, he was happy to hear his state was getting, as he says, "the A-Team." Smith is one of the Clinton camp’s elite on-the-ground operatives, and the use of Smith, who cut his teeth running Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral race in Los Angeles and Jerry Brown’s 2006 California attorney general contest, indicated that even when Hillary was behind double digits in the state, she was planning an ambitious campaign there. Twice this campaign, in California and Texas, he has been handed the reins of a do-or-die state--and twice he has delivered.

Yet, unlike so many other big-time strategists--particularly big-time Clinton strategists--he’s thought of as someone who doesn't seek the limelight, a behind-the-scenes guy who'd just assume it be about the candidate. Indeed, descriptions of Smith pretty much universally go like this:  He wears glasses. He's not big into ties. His hair is grey and thinning--well, what isn't gone is thinning." He looks like someone's dad," Thompson says. "Some folks might have dealt with him and not realized that it was Ace they were talking to."

His demeanor as a manager? Polite, even-tempered--the anti-Mark Penn. While in North Carolina, he's been listening to Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz's "Iberia" suite, a masterwork of piano music with four books of three pieces.

"I never get stressed out in any circumstances," Smith told TNR.com, calling it one of the important qualities of a manager. "Ninety percent of mistakes are made by people making emotional decisions under pressure."

He's also, apparently, lethal. "Ace is like Bobby DeNiro in The Untouchables--he always brings a gun to a knife fight," says Chris Lehane, a former Al Gore and John Kerry staffer who has known Smith for a decade and likes him.

Smith, in fact, seems to possess a wicked backhand. "He's hired by clients to get negative stories in the paper, and he does quite well at that," says Democratic political strategist Kam Kuwata, whose candidate lost to Smith’s in the 2005 L.A. mayoral race. In that campaign, for instance, Smith transformed a minor billing scandal at the Department of Water and Power into proof that Kuwata's candidate, then-L.A. mayor James Hahn, would allow corruption to thrive in the city. And after the Los Angeles Times reported, in 2006, that Jerry Brown's opponent Rocky Delgadillo lied about playing professional football in Canada, Smith, it's said, made sure the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' team roster made its way into reporters' hands.

 

Smith was born 49 years ago in San Francisco. And though he campaigned for George McGovern’s presidential run, in 1972, at the tender age of 13, he only decided that politics was his true love several years later, when he took off a semester from college to help his dad run for district attorney of San Francisco.

"You don't really know what it's like until you get swept up in the hurly-burly of a campaign," he said by cell phone last week, the roar from a Clinton North Carolina event in the background. “It's like a pilgrimage down a raging river."

In the 1980s he served as political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, working alongside Rahm Emanuel. Then, in 1988, he began doing oppositional research. He logged oppo time for Democrats and Republicans, Mayors Richard M. Daley in Chicago and Richard Riordan in L.A. He also worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential run, in 1992. But Smith says opposition research--digging around for days and days, looking for dirt--was kind of a drag. "It's actually very boring, tedious work, and I did it longer than I intended [until 2001]."

Garry South, a good friend and political strategist who has used Smith in most of his major campaigns--including the California governor races in 1998 and 2002, and a recall campaign in 2003--says that when Smith was a mere researcher, he often possessed more knowledge than the chief strategists. "He probably had, in his head or his computer, more information to manage a campaign than anyone else and he integrated it better," South says.

For Clinton, Smith has focused on two key groups: early voters and people in small towns. In Texas, that meant getting President Clinton to the border area, where there were plenty of Latinos--potential Hillary voters--but not ones who had traditionally participated in primaries. Smith, Lehane says, sent the president there and got large numbers of votes locked in early.

In the week before the California contest on Super Tuesday, the polls were tightening, and Smith was getting nervous calls. But, with an imposing tally of early votes in the bank, Smith remained confident. "He said, though not this nicely, ‘Stop bothering me, we're gonna win by ten points,'" says Lehane. Clinton won 51 percent of the vote; Obama 43 percent.

In North Carolina, Thompson says, typically the political professionals don’t know how politics work on the ground and don't ask. But Smith impressed the locals by taking their advice to heart. Thompson and others told him that even though North Carolina is a big, and increasingly urban state, retail politics still matter. So, Smith made it hard for the people of North Carolina not to run into a Clinton. "There's no town too big or too small for us to tell Ace and his staff that the senator, President Clinton, or Chelsea should go to," Thompson says.

Thompson went on one of Bill Clinton's rural trips (dubbed by some “Bubba’s Barbecue Tour”), hitting nine cities in 30 hours. Among the stops was Deep Run, population 200. The former president also campaigned in Roanoke Rapids*, some 70 miles from the capital city Raleigh, but further if measured in feel. "Folks who sell red, white and blue bunting did well that weekend," says Thompson, whose grandmother lives in the city. It was, he says, a stop outside the I-85 corridor, a chance for the places in the state that get ignored.

Smith also came up with another tactic with a small-town feel: www.ncaskme.org, a site where voters could email questions to Clinton. The first week, Thompson says, they received 10,000 e-mails.

As it stands, Clinton seems to have cut down what polls said was a double-digit lead for Barack Obama in the state. Not for nothing did Obama spend significant time in Durham, instead of in Indiana, on Monday. But even if Obama wins North Carolina, it’ll likely be by a lot less than originally believed, and Smith will be seen as having delivered yet again. The it’s on to the next key contest, wherever it may be. (Oregon, maybe? Kentucky?)

"I can't believe they pay me to do what I do,” he says. "If there's a great campaign, I'll be there."

Adrienne Johnson Martin is a writer and editor who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Correction: The article originally stated that Roanoke Rapids is Bruce Thompson's hometown, though it is not. It is where his grandmother lives. The current piece reflects that information.

By Adrienne Johnson Martin