WASHINGTON -- Anyone who knows Mary Matalin, says a White House friend, knows that the aggressive, tough and tart-tongued deputy manager of President Bush's re-election campaign is like a "force of nature."
This week, true to form, she blazed through the presidential campaign like a bolt of lightning but was struck herself after the president disavowed her biting and flippant attack on Democrat Bill Clinton.
Not only has the incident thrown the Bush team's top-ranking woman front and center, it has also cast a spotlight on the intriguing subplot of the Bush-Clinton battle: Ms. Matalin's Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance with Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.
The week has not been an easy one for either of them. While Mr. Carville, an equally rough-edged, sharp-tongued politician nicknamed the "Ragin' Cajun" for his Louisiana roots, has let loose with his own verbal grenades at the opposition, he says it's been upsetting to see his personal soul mate, albeit professional enemy, in the hot seat. Yesterday, he sent her flowers.
For her part, Ms. Matalin, 38, a protege of the late Lee Atwater, who earned a reputation as the pit bull of American politics, has been in the unenviable position of eclipsing her candidate in the news. "I think this is tearing her up," said Tony Snow, a White House deputy assistant to the president.
He and other friends and colleagues describe the longtime Bush loyalist as a first-rate pol who has gotten where few women have in Republican politics -- "a woman working in men's politics," says one acquaintance -- through hard work and a keen love of politics and competition.
"She can duke it out with the best of them," said a former colleague. "She's not worrying about stepping on anyone's toes."
Some believe Sunday's surly news release, one of a series of daily punches Ms. Matalin had just started delivering to the opposition and has continued to do, reflected her extreme frustration with the inert state of the Bush campaign, noting that the comments she faxed to reporters were the sort she'd usually serve to reporters off the record.
But Maria Cino, a Republican aide on Capitol Hill and one of Ms. Matalin's best friends, said the press release -- in which Ms. Matalin calls the Clinton team "sniveling hypocritical Democrats" and alludes to charges of marital infidelity by the candidate -- "is basically Mary. She's very quick, very blunt, very aggressive, a great fighter."
And still something of an anomaly in the button-down world of GOP politics and, specifically, the largely male-dominated Bush-Quayle campaign. A tall, thin, earthy brunette, she is more comfortable coming to work in jeans and cowboy boots than in what she calls "dress-up clothes" and is so hip, says Mr. Snow, that she demonstrates that "the Democrats no longer have the corner on the market for coolness."
"She flies in the face of what most people think of as the standard Republican," says campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke, another blunt speaker. She and Ms. Matalin have in fact been called the "Thelma and Louise of the GOP."
Ms. Matalin is witty, direct and often so shockingly profane that colleagues refer to her inimitable way with words as "Maryspeak," noting, for instance, that she refers to assistant Dave Carney as "stud muffin."
This spring, when a reporter pointed out the usefulness to the Bush campaign of having a woman in such a high-profile position, Ms. Matalin said, "Big deal, so I help them with the chick thing."
As she also pointed out, she helps them with the "poor thing," vividly contrasting the privileged, moneyed men of Mr. Bush's inner circle.
The granddaughter of Croatian immigrants, Ms. Matalin grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she attended public schools. Her father worked at a steel mill -- as she did as a teen-ager -- and her mother ran a chain of beauty schools, where she also worked for a time before earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Western Illinois State. (Still a pro at hair styling, she gives haircuts to Mr. Carney, among others.)
Although both her parents were Democrats, she came to Washington in 1981 to work at the Republican National Committee in voter education. She took a detour through a year of law school, a one-year marriage and divorce to a fellow committee worker, then went out to Michigan in 1986 to work on Mr. Bush's campaign, eventually coordinating the election effort for the entire Midwest and making a name for herself.
After the election, and after being passed over as White House political director -- because of her gender, some believe -- Ms. Matalin returned to the national committee as chief of staff and forged a close tie with Mr. Atwater.
"I don't go through a single hour of a single day without missing him," she says in an interview in this month's Vogue.
Mr. Snow believes Mr. Atwater's death last year "probably hardened her resolve to keep up the fight, to do the best for the party and the ideas she believes in."
Mr. Carville, often described as the Democrats' Lee Atwater, says he and Ms. Matalin "don't discuss politics. There are other things to talk about besides politics."
Still, the relationship has raised eyebrows among political operatives who have wondered how the two can engage in such a fierce political fight.
"They are professionals," said Mr. Snow, defending their actions. "They have very real political beliefs. Mary is not going to compromise her political beliefs because she's in love with someone."
But even Mr. Carville, who once called himself "a prisoner of love," acknowledges that for two intense political creatures, it's a rough way to run a relationship. Still, he's comforted knowing that he can now see the light at the end of the tunnel -- one way or another -- for the campaign:
"I just hope it's not a train."