Can a team player rescue the Republicans?
To fend off the Democrats' charge, House leader John Boehner stresses unity.
By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

(Fortune Magazine) -- The pack of Barclays emerges ten minutes into our conversation, and John Boehner - plastics entrepreneur turned U.S. Congressman turned House majority leader - is unapologetic about a habit he hasn't bothered to try kicking in 20 years.

"I like to smoke," the Ohio Republican says with a shrug of his shoulders, a gesture that (like the eye rolls) reminds self-important Washington that he's one of 12 kids who grew up helping tend his dad's bar, that he later built a thriving business out of one customer, that he doesn't really take all this Beltway b.s. too seriously.

Even as pundits predict a possible Democratic takeover of the House, Boehner insists he's not letting it get to him. He's not smoking more than his usual two packs a day. He still shows off that winning if wacky golf swing that makes colleagues snicker. The George Hamilton tan shows no sign of fading.

Boehner admits he was feeling some strain back in March - a month after he was elected to lead an increasingly unruly tribe of 231 House Republicans. But then he started the smile thing. During a particularly rough Tuesday, he told himself he would smile all day, no matter what happened. He tried it the next day, and the next. Six months later he does a perfect imitation of a man pretending he's not under stress.

At a meeting of House Republicans in early September to discuss the Democrats' planned resolution of "no confidence" in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Boehner firmly reins in some colleagues who quietly agree with the sentiment. That afternoon he sits down with GOP committee chairs who have openly rebelled against the White House over immigration. Boehner is focused on the November goalposts, and unity is imperative. (He lectures at the "no confidence" meeting that "this is not about Rumsfeld" but about the Democrats' scoring pre-election points.) "You have to motivate people," he tells me, "inspire them to do what's in the team's interest as opposed to their own."

Until his surprise victory to replace Texas's Tom DeLay, who relinquished his House leader post after being indicted on campaign-corruption charges, Boehner was known mostly as a well-liked, pro-business conservative who didn't disguise his future ambitions to run for the Speaker's seat now held by Illinois's Dennis Hastert.

Today, as the No. 2 GOP leader, he's helping Hastert run the joint. With Republicans tainted by the Abramoff scandal, Boehner campaigned for the leadership job as an ethics reformer. Critics highlighted his ties to K Street lobbyists and history of privately funded travel. But Boehner's years-long campaign against "earmarks" - special-interest goodies tucked into laws at the behest of individual members-lent him credibility.

Boehner, who at age 25 took over a tiny Cincinnati plastics and packaging outfit and built it into a profitable company, has put corporate concerns center stage. Most recently he led Congress to pass a sweeping pension-overhaul law, an issue he's been trying to get action on for years. "I was helped by the dumping of the Bethlehem Steel plan and United Airlines, and I could go down the list," he says.

If the Republicans hang onto the House in November, Boehner says entitlement reform will top his agenda, adding that Social Security and Medicare "are not sustainable in their current form."

His political style as House leader is certainly different from his predecessor's. DeLay - like the charismatic former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, at whose side Boehner spent much of the '90s - operated a "management structure driven from the top," Boehner says. "I don't operate that way. I don't want my team to operate that way. I want more people involved in the decision-making process. It's a slower process."

He's also worked well with leading Democrats, singing the praises of Senator Edward Kennedy, a key ally on pension reform and, earlier, the No Child Left Behind education law. "We respect each other immensely. We like each other," Boehner says of the Massachusetts Senator, with whom he sponsors an annual charity dinner for inner-city Catholic schools.

Nearly a decade ago, Boehner opposed House Republicans eager to pursue impeachment of President Clinton. "If your opponent is committing suicide," Boehner likes to say, "there's no reason to murder him."

But make no mistake: Boehner has killer instincts that rival those of the DCCC's Rahm Emanuel (a political foe he dismisses as "too cute by half"). Early on this year Boehner rejected advice from colleagues who wanted him to devise a "triple bank shot" or silver bullet - some dramatic political move - to help Republicans retain control of the House.

"It was nonsense," he says. "Successful teams block, tackle, move the ball down the field, and put points on the board. That's what I've tried to do all year, and it has helped bring our team back together." Yet in the stretch run to the November election, the House leader is loosening up his game plan.

On the day after this year's 9/11 anniversary he suggested that Democrats were "more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people." The comment prompted furious denunciations from his colleagues across the aisle. But it didn't dent Boehner's smile.

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