OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ When Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., suggested that friend and congressional adversary Rham Emmanuel of Illinois should take on the task of leading Democrats back to power in the House, he compared him to a rugged, famous general from World War II.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cole said Emmanuel doubted he would get the job because he was not that well liked by Democratic leaders.
``I told him you don't have to like George Patton if you need a George Patton,'' Cole said, referring to Emmanuel's reputation for political toughness.
It was the ultimate compliment from one savvy politician to another, and as it turned out, Democrats picked the Illinois House member to head their committee in a successful drive to regain the House majority in 2006.
Now Cole is going against the odds as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, trying to knock off Democratic incumbents and put the GOP back in power.
However, Emmanuel, during a break from his congressional duties, declined to compare his friend from the opposing party to a general.
``The Tom Cole I know is a pussycat. He's a soft, sensitive Alan Alda sort of guy,'' he joked about Cole, known in Oklahoma as an amicable but hard-nosed partisan who played a major role in Republican gains in his home state over 2 1/2 decades.
Emmanuel himself embraces his tough guy reputation. ``Around here, I'm called Vince after Vince Lombardi (the legendary Green Bay Packer football coach). I am tough and determined because I care about what I believe in and I want to see it through.''
He had one more gibe for Cole, saying the Oklahoman practically persuaded him to head up the Democratic National Campaign Committee by telling Emmanuel he would be frustrated for life if he did not accept the challenge.
``I told him you're the reason I took on the committee. You don't have anybody else to blame,'' Emmanuel said.
On a serious note, the Illinois congressman called Cole ``a total gentleman, a pro, a decent human being. Tom is a tough partisan, but he's fair.''
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating says the two House members, although adversaries, genuinely like each other and are appreciative of each other's political talents.
``That's an anomaly in Washington,'' says Keating, a longtime federal official before returning to Oklahoma to win two terms as governor. He appointed Cole to be secretary of state and his top political adviser.
Keating said Cole, in his new role, is equipped to bring the GOP back _ if anyone can.
``He has an icy cliff to climb because the country is moving away from George W. Bush and the Republicans,'' said the ex-chief executive, who is back in Washington as head of an insurance association.
Cole, an eternal political optimist, used to say in Oklahoma that he could win any election where Republicans had 35 percent of the registered voters.
But he said he could see the Democratic onslaught coming last year because of President Bush's ebbing popularity over the Iraq war and public reaction to the Jack Abramoff scandal, among other things.
``I told Rham you are due. You are going to pick up seats. The question is how many. He took advantage of the opportunities we gave him.
``If you are a quarterback and your opponents are defending deep, you throw into the flats. He knew where to hit us and how to hit us.''
Cole, who founded a successful political consulting firm, also was chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party and a state senator.
He left Oklahoma in 1999 to become chief of staff of the Republican National Committee in Washington. He previously had been executive director of the RNCC, which he now chairs. In 2002, he was elected to replace J.C. Watts as representative of Oklahoma's 4th Congressional District, which takes in the University of Oklahoma, Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill Army Base.
Keating said the 58-year-old Cole is uniquely qualified to attract good GOP candidates and mold a successful national congressional drive because of his experience, education, his appeal to minorities as the only Native American in the House and ``the sense of middle-American humility he brings to the job.''
A former college history professor, Cole holds a masters degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, both in British history. A member of the Chickasaw Nation, his late mother, Helen Cole, was a successful politician, serving as a state representative and senator
``He brings a Ph.D's academic order to political chaos,'' Keating said. ``He is really able to sit down and dissect politicians' assets and liabilities, the races, the demographics, the inner workings of each congressional district.''
Cole said to triumph in 2008 Republicans must convince voters ``they are still the party of limited government, lower taxes, traditional values and a stronger defense.
``I still think the conservative message is a winning message. I think this is a center-right country.''
It all starts with recruiting good candidates, he said. ``Candidates are about 80 percent of any election,'' he said. ``It's pretty simple stuff. It's hard to do, but it is pretty simple.''
Although he personally has supported President Bush in Iraq, Cole said: ``I think things will change. I don't think our commitment is endless.
``I think elections are about the future, not the past. I think people will be thinking about a post-Iraq world.''
Cole said Democrats won 61 seats two years ago in districts that Bush won in his re-election bid.
``I think I see a way to gain ground and potentially get to a majority,'' he said. ``This is going to be a very close and intense presidential election. It's a better situation than we had in 06.''