Usually her boss is the one onstage, but on this particular day, at least for an hour and a half, it's Sarah Bianchi's turn in the spotlight.
In a conference room packed with observers at Washington's Willard Hotel, Bianchi, domestic policy director for the campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), sits with one leg crossed over the other, rocking her grounded foot back and forth on its heel, then toe. A pile of paper rests on her lap, and a pen shifts about in her hand.
Bianchi is waiting for her turn to speak in a debate on healthcare costs and who would do a better job addressing them-President Bush or Kerry, who is expected to accept the nomination for president at this month's Democratic National Convention in Boston.
As her opponent discusses the Bush administration's efforts to expand insurance coverage, Bianchi takes the occasional deep breath and smiles broadly in response to certain comments-like a high-school debater anxious to pounce on the flawed argument she's just heard.
Facing off with Doug Badger, senior health policy adviser to President Bush and a man 20 years her senior, Bianchi moves from broad critiques of the president's healthcare agenda to the nitty-gritty of hospital payment policy. The exchange, which took place in late May, is a lot like Bianchi herself, serious and wonky but also fun and self-deprecating.
"I may be the only person in Washington who's worked for Ted Kennedy and the Democratic Leadership Council, but somebody in town has to be a compassionate conservative," she jokes during the debate moderated by veteran presidential adviser David Gergen.
At 31, Bianchi has a professional portfolio some of Washington's most vaunted politicos would envy. She helped craft healthcare policy in the Clinton White House, advised Al Gore during his 2000 bid for the presidency and worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), in addition to other political posts.
Guiding the domestic agenda
With a background in health policy but responsibility for Kerry's entire domestic policy operation, Bianchi "has more experience in her early 30s than most people will have in a lifetime," says Bruce Reed, president of the leadership council and domestic policy adviser under Clinton.
Although Bianchi may have the prototype Washington resume, she displays fewer of the typical inside-the-Beltway behaviors and personality traits than some of her colleagues, say those who know her and have worked with her.
"She doesn't let her ego get in the way," says Chris Jennings, who supervised Bianchi for several years in the Clinton White House. "She wants to find the best people to do the best work and doesn't limit their access to the candidate or the process for fear of having them shine. ... That frequently is not the case."
Ego or not, the next challenge Bianchi has set for herself is no small one: to elect a president.
"I was stumped by the recount," she says, referring to the Florida voting problems in 2000 that helped put George Bush in the White House. "It was clear to me through the process that more people in Florida voted for Al Gore. I pretty much knew then what I wanted to do in 2004."
Born and raised in Atlanta, Bianchi attended the Paideia School, which her father founded in 1971 along with a group of parents who wanted a more rigorous education for their kids. The school's philosophy, according to its Web site, "is based on the belief that schools can be informal and individualized, yet still educate well."
Bianchi's mom worked part time at the school in addition to her job as a developmental psychologist at Atlanta's 1,047-bed Grady Memorial Hospital, an inner-city facility that sparked Bianchi's initial interest in healthcare. For years she listened to stories about premature babies who would have gone full term had their prenatal care been better. She learned that in the nation's busiest hospitals, there are limited resources but almost unlimited needs.
"People who work in hospitals understand better than anyone else that we should have a healthcare system that catches people before they end up in the emergency room or ICU," says Bianchi, the middle child between two sisters who also attended Paideia.
Motivating her now, in part, is the possibility of making major reforms to the healthcare system, especially ones that would expand coverage. "Four more years of George Bush and we'll see the uninsured go up another 4 million-and hospitals will bear the brunt of it," Bianchi says.
Bianchi's colleagues-on both sides of the aisle-say she has a strong grasp of policy details but also fine-tuned political skills, a rare combination in a city where people are often classified into one camp or the other.
"She has the trifecta of experience that campaigns look for-she's worked on presidential campaigns, on Capitol Hill and in the White House," says Alec Vachon, a Republican health policy aide in the Senate when Bianchi worked for Kennedy. In Washington and particularly among Democrats, Vachon says, "Sarah is wired. ... She comes across a little edgy but beneath it she's a really sweet person."
Bianchi's reported knack for linking politics and policy, along with her ability to manage strong and difficult personalities, "befits someone conducting an orchestra," says her former boss Jennings.
In the Kerry campaign, Bianchi manages a staff of 12 domestic and economic policy aides. The first such group she's supervised, her team would have been difficult if not impossible to afford if the campaign had not forgone public financing and the spending limits it imposes.
"One thing I love about campaigns is you get a chance to help frame for the nation what the real choice is," Bianchi says. Especially this time around, she adds, "It's a significant one."
It does come at a price to obtain the level of influence Bianchi at least for now enjoys. Like many Washington insiders, Bianchi juggles what she calls "a terrible schedule," working seven days a week and responding to work e-mail after she's gone home.
On a recent afternoon at Kerry's campaign headquarters in Washington, Bianchi scurries out of a meeting and is pulled aside twice before she can meet briefly with a reporter and photographer. She carries a cell phone and a BlackBerry, as well as a thick three-ring binder and a red pen.
She looks puzzled when the BlackBerry rings, and says she doesn't know who could have the number since she doesn't know it herself.
Bianchi spends a good deal of her time in meetings, with both Kerry campaign personnel and outside consultants. She also fields calls from reporters and occasionally travels with Kerry, who she otherwise updates with written materials.
Healthcare consumes a lot of Bianchi's time, she says, because it is "one of John Kerry's top priorities." She is also responsible for coordinating the campaign's economic policy.
In 1995, Bianchi graduated from Harvard University, where she earned her degree in social studies, a program that spanned government, economics and philosophy. It was at Harvard that Bianchi began to closely watch Clinton and became increasingly interested in what politics can do.
In her last two years at Harvard, Bianchi shared a room with Karenna Gore, daughter of the former vice president. They became close friends. But when Bianchi landed her first internship in the Clinton White House shortly after leaving Boston, it wasn't with Karenna's help.
Having decided to seek a White House job, Bianchi "never asked the Gores, who could have easily gotten her a plum assignment," Jennings says. "She wanted to make it, or fail to make it, all on her own."
Her desk usually looked like a storm had hit it, former officials recall, but somehow Bianchi always knew where everything was. Still, she could get so wrapped up in the work of the day that she'd forget to wear her White House security badge to the office. According to Jennings, security personnel "kicked her out of the White House" at least four times for not having her pass.
Before joining the Gore campaign in 2000, Bianchi started as a White House intern and eventually worked in the Office of Management and Budget, where she learned the ins and outs of the federal healthcare budget and served under Nancy-Ann DeParle, who later went on to run HCFA, predecessor agency to the CMS.
Following her time in the Clinton administration, Bianchi joined the Gore campaign as deputy issues director. In that role, she helped formulate policy for Gore, developed rebuttals to Bush proposals and flew with Gore on the campaign plane.
Between the 2000 election and her decision to join the Kerry campaign in March, Bianchi worked for Kennedy, handling issues including the patients' bill of rights, medical privacy, mental health coverage and economic stimulus. In April 2002, Bianchi left Kennedy's office to do consulting work for the leadership council and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Candidates come courting
Some of the other Democratic candidates for president, most prominently Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, aggressively courted Bianchi to run their domestic policy operations. After several meetings with Kerry, she chose to sign onto his campaign. "I was impressed with how thoughtful he was about the race (and) what he wanted to do for our country." In the conversations she had with Kerry before taking the job, "He gave a really good sell," Bianchi says.
Advising Kerry on all domestic policy matters, Bianchi is still learning the intricacies of issues outside her health policy specialty. Homeland security matters, she says, are vastly different now than they were during the 2000 election and represent one of her challenges.
When she can, Bianchi spends time with her 2- and 5-year old nieces who also live in Washington. She prefers to run and bike for exercise but doesn't "have a lot of time" for those activities, she says.
Eventually Bianchi may tire of the constant politics and pressure that comes with life on a campaign, and in Washington generally, Jennings says. "Knowing her as well as I do, it's hard for me to see her totally extricate herself from this world, but I also believe she would welcome a break from it."
Bianchi is cautious when speculating about her future, both personally and professionally. She is happy to hear Jennings thinks she will eventually marry and have kids but doesn't commit to that course.
As for what happens after the election and which job Bianchi would hope to have in a Kerry administration, "I'm just going to get through November," she says.
"One thing I love about campaigns is you get a chance to help frame for the nation what the real choice is,"--Sarah Bianchi, domestic policy director for John Kerry's presidential campaign
Education: Harvard University, bachelor's degree in social studies, 1995
Previous jobs: White House policy intern, 1995; worked in White House policy offices, including the Office of Management and Budget and as national policy director in the office of Vice President Al Gore, 1997 to October 1999; deputy issues director for Gore's presidential campaign, 1999 to 2000; worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, 2001 to April 2002; consultant, Democratic Leadership Council and Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, 2002.