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Menendez Rises, Shines

When Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) got his wake-up call at 7:30 Tuesday morning, he asked the front desk of his hotel to give him five more minutes before he started a jam-packed day at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

After all, a day in the life of a superdelegate at the convention can be rough. Already on Menendez’s agenda were five speaking gigs, three media interviews and a hoped-for stop at a local International House of Pancakes. But before the day was over, Menendez — the vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who also serves as the unofficial Senate Democratic liaison to the Spanish-speaking media outlets — would end up doing so much more.

“I love the conventions because it fuels the party’s energy and builds momentum and brings people together, but for me, it’s a lot of work,” Menendez said. “Although this year, with the vice chair role at the DSCC, it’s been more. So between delegation responsibilities … and everything on the schedule, the bottom line is, it’s a work process. It’s about building support for the Senate Democrats. It’s about communicating for [the nominee] and for the party with the Latino community, which I play a unique role in, and it’s about doing all the other stuff that you would do at the convention as well.”

With nothing but a cup of coffee to fortify him, Menendez is out the door of his hotel located in the tony Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver and headed 14 miles away to the New Jersey delegation hotel in Englewood. Thinking he is late, the Senator jumps out of his car 8:58 a.m. and rushes down the hall to the breakfast room.

Though he needs to be at a DSCC breakfast by 10-ish, his speaking slot at the delegation breakfast is behind two unexpectedly long-winded mayors — Doug Palmer of Trenton and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb — who talk for 40 minutes before Menendez has his shot.

By 9:39 a.m. he takes the podium and pumps up New Jersey delegates with red-meat lines: “It’s time to take New Jersey and go from light blue to deep blue.”

His speech is done by 9:50 a.m., but before he can get back into the car, he stops for two impromptu media interviews with New York City’s NBC and ABC stations.

He tells NBC that “there’s work to be done … to solidify the [Latino] community and excite them to come out to vote” for Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

He tells ABC that the media needs to stop stoking the disunity story between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “It’s just media hype,” he said. “You guys can’t have a good story without conflict.”

Then he’s walking out, but New Jersey print reporters are on him like flies at Fresh Kills, trying to keep pace with him while peppering him with questions about a rumor that the Obama camp snubbed him on a speaking gig at the convention. He sidesteps the question: “Speaking is not important. Winning is.”

At 10:35 a.m., Menendez and his entourage, including State Director/driver Michael Soliman, Chief of Staff Danny O’Brien, Press Secretary Afshin Mohamadi and a Roll Call reporter, are stuck in traffic in downtown, and it’s clear they’re not going to make the DSCC’s breakfast for incumbents.

That’s when talk in the Senator’s car turns to where to find the nearest IHOP. Naturally, staff has already mapped out the two closest locations before even arriving in Denver, given the Senator’s habits.

“In New Jersey, if someone tells Michael, ‘I met the Senator and he said to get in touch with you,’ Michael will ask them, ‘Where did you meet him.’ and if they say, ‘IHOP,’ he knows it’s true,” said Menendez, who also mused about his post-political future as a potential IHOP franchisee. He already knows the restaurant chain’s motto, “Come hungry, leave happy.”

Menendez said he likes eating at IHOP because of the opportunity to mingle with regular folk and get a sense of what the public is thinking about, and that’s exactly what he gets at this IHOP after driving around in circles for more than 10 minutes trying to find it on the outskirts of Denver. It’s only 11 a.m., and his next gig isn’t until noon.

After ordering the Smokehouse Combo without looking at the menu and chatting with restaurant staff in Spanish — telling them he’s a Senator from New Jersey and is in a bit of a rush — the waiter appears and asks him in Spanish about immigration legislation in Congress.

Now reinvigorated by coffee, eggs and sausage, the Senator and the entourage hop back in the car to head back to Cherry Creek for a lunch for the DSCC “Legacy Circle,” which was intended to thank donors who have given the maximum amount to the Senate Democratic committee for at least three or four consecutive years.

Although the event was closed to press, Menendez said he and other Senators in attendance would tell donors that “their legacy really is beyond building a Democratic Senate. It’s about building a new America.” Of course, he acknowledged he would also be asking them to continue contributing.

At 1:17 p.m., Menendez is done hosting the lunch and heads back to his nearby hotel for some R&R. But he doesn’t get it. Just as he gets to his room his phone rings, and he’s forced to make a slew of calls back to New Jersey before heading back into the car at 1:47 p.m.

Traffic isn’t nearly as bad as the morning, and the Senator arrives a half-hour early at the MySpace Café for a Voto Latino interview. While Mohamadi walks in to see whether they can take the Senator sooner than 2:30 p.m., Menendez breaks into song in the car, doing his best Robert Goulet impression by singing “The Impossible Dream” from the musical “Man of La Mancha.”

Soliman said Menendez often serenades him. “At least he has a nice voice,” Soliman offered.

Though Voto Latino isn’t ready for Menendez — they have TV’s Eva Longoria first (beauty before power) — a Newark Star-Ledger reporter is waiting inside. Staff writer Josh Margolin is pursuing the same snub rumor that the other New Jersey scribes were chasing. Menendez feeds him the same line he gave the other reporters, but Margolin isn’t having it, telling the Senator that he’s writing the story because he believes his sources on this one. Menendez shrugs, and they share a few laughs over New Jersey politics.

After Longoria is done, Menendez sits down for a 15-minute video blog interview. Then it’s back to Cherry Creek to for a 3:30 p.m. “Salute to Hispanic Leaders” put on by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Pressed for time because of another commitment, he’s accommodated when he asks to speak first. Mohamadi and O’Brien are visibly nervous about making the live broadcast they’ve committed to a few miles away.

After giving a poised speech and then excusing himself, Menendez is back in the car by 4:04 p.m. and racing to the Pepsi Center. At 4:35, he’s in the Univision booth speaking in Spanish about the importance of electing Obama. He gives much the same interview to Telemundo and again to CNN en Espanol — two unscheduled interviews that he squeezes in.

“I don’t seek it as a publicity hound, but at the same time, I feel comfortable talking to the press,” he said. “At the end of the day, when families are struggling to meet their everyday challenges, messaging — making sure they understand what we stand for — is critically important. If we cede that, then we do that at our own peril and at the peril of the agenda we want to achieve.”

By 5:35 p.m., Menendez is at the Denver Art Museum preparing to deliver a thoughtful speech on democracy to the National Democratic Institute and sharing the stage with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who praised Menendez for promoting democratic ideals.

By 6:15 p.m., he’s back in the car and overstuffing it with staffers to get them all into the Pepsi Center for Clinton’s anticipated speech. As an ardent Clinton supporter before Obama’s primary win, it’s a speech Menendez doesn’t want to miss, and he wants to be on the convention floor early to snag a seat.

He has the choice of sitting in a posh sky box furnished by the DSCC or with the New Jersey delegation; he picks his home state — as does fellow New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Gov. Jon Corzine.

“This is home,” Menendez said. “I don’t get to be the junior Senator from New Jersey or vice chairman of the DSCC without being elected by the people of New Jersey.”

And then Menendez becomes much like his much lower-profile delegates to the convention, chuckling at Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s good-natured warm-up speech. When Clinton appears on stage at about 8:40 p.m., he’s on his feet clapping with the 4,200 other people in the Pepsi Center and raptly watching the speech that is supposed to unify the party after a bruising primary.

After the speech, Menendez describes it as “electrifying,” but fatigue has clearly set in. He decides not only to skip a New Jersey delegation party at Invesco Field at Mile High, but he also ditches the reporter who has been shadowing him all day, wearily asking, “Do you have any more questions?”

Then, according to Mohamadi, he braved the downtown Denver traffic, ate a late dinner with staffers and returned to his hotel a little after midnight for some much needed shut-eye.

“It’s work,” Menendez said earlier in the day. “At the end of the day, I have no problem sleeping, I’ll tell you that.”

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