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WASHINGTON - Jeff Larson, the Minnesota Republican activist behind Sarah Palin's new wardrobe, doesn't see himself as much of a political Svengali.
Suddenly famous for providing the credit card that the Republican vice-presidential candidate used for a GOP Convention shopping spree, Larson longs for the anonymity of the behind-the-scenes operative that he has always been.
"I want to return to obscurity," he said Thursday over tea in a coffee shop near the White House.
Larson, the CEO of the convention host committee and founding partner of the influential Twin Cities telemarketing firm FLS Connect, declined to discuss Palin' s $75,000 shopping trip at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis.
Federal Election Commission reports show that Larson has been reimbursed, and the Republican National Committee has said that all the merchandise will be given to charity after the election.
The flap, which Democrats have used to challenge Palin's hockey-mom image, is only the latest to ensnare the 49-year-old telemarketing entrepreneur from Grand Forks, N.D. He has also been linked to a controversial phone bank campaign against Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. On top of that, he has gotten heat for renting a $600 room to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, with whom he has longtime political ties.
Larson says both raps are unfair.
For starters, he denies any involvement with the nationwide spate of "robo-calls" trashing Obama, although he acknowledges that FLS Connect is behind the live-operator calls Minnesota residents have received in the past week on behalf of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
As for the Democrats' criticism that the calls are intended to create fear about their candidate, Larson says "call the campaign."
He's just the guy who arranges the phone calls. "I'm like the printer." he said. "If you get a piece of campaign mail you don't like, you don't call the printer."
Larson also disputes widespread news media accounts that he was behind a blitz of calls in the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina making incendiary claims about John McCain.
Strong connections, low profile
Larson, a North Dakota native who prefers open-collar shirts to the button-down look of many of his top GOP clients -- including McCain and Coleman -- is often described as a rising star in Republican strategy circles.
He certainly has the connections, having worked on both of President Bush's campaigns, as well as that of Bush's father. His star-studded Rolodex includes Karl Rove and a host of other GOP strategists.
But he managed to keep a low public profile until this year.
"He's a smart Clark Kent," said Minnesota Republican strategist Sarah Janecek, noting his disdain for publicity. "But for Republicans, he's Superman. He really delivers on the nuts and bolts of what you need to get done in campaigns."
Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber calls Larson a "serious player in the national political party," as well as a visionary who was among the first to see the potential of telemarketing as a way to raise money and connect with voters.
"There's nothing mysterious about him, other than he doesn't like headlines," Weber said.
What is unusual about Larson is that he practices his Beltway-centered trade far outside the Beltway. He says his Capitol Hill townhouse, where Coleman rents a room, was purchased simply to save on "$400 to $500 hotel rooms" for his regular visits to the capital.
Larson's leap to prominence amazes even him. He started out in politics as a driver for North Dakota Senate candidate Bud Westman. Before long, he was a deputy campaign manager.
"It shows you how meteoric your rise can be in politics," he said.
From there, he worked his way around the country in Republican politics, always true to his formative years as a disciple of Ronald Reagan, whose speeches still play for callers to his office who are placed on hold.
If his political enemies decry him as a hired gun, his friends say he at least shoots straight.
"He has proven himself to be one who is still in this business because he's honest," said Jean Coddington, a longtime Minnesota friend and associate on a series of grass-roots and issue-advocacy campaigns. "He rose in the political world by keeping his nose clean."
Among his 10-year-old company's most important accounts are the RNC, and, of course, Coleman, on whose political action committee he serves as treasurer.
But despite his many roles and contacts, Larson doesn't see himself as much of a power broker. "There are a lot of people who are a lot better connected," he said. "I'm just trying to do my part."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-5157