WASHINGTON — Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from South Florida and a key White House defender, was chosen by President Barack Obama on Tuesday to become chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Obama picked the four-term lawmaker from South Florida to succeed Tim Kaine, who earlier Tuesday announced he would seek a Senate seat in Virginia. The move elevates Wasserman Schultz to a crucial role as Obama looks toward a re-election campaign that will use the DNC to define his likely Republican rivals.
"As Chairman Kaine departs, new leadership must come on," Vice President Joe Biden wrote Tuesday afternoon to members of the Democratic National Committee, which will have to ratify her selection.
"In selecting Debbie to lead our party, President Obama noted her tenacity, her strength, her fighting spirit and her ability to overcome adversity."
If the full DNC ratifies the choice as expected, Wasserman Schultz would be the first woman elected chair by the full body. Two others have served as appointed chairwomen.
In a statement released from the DNC, Wasserman Schultz said she would work "every day to guarantee that President Obama and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are in the best position to win their races."
But keeping the White House would be her central charge.
"During my tenure, there will be nothing more important to our party or to the American people than advancing President Obama's agenda and ensuring that he is elected to a second term so we can continue to move our country forward," she said.
Wasserman Schultz, who backed one-time Obama rival Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary, quickly became a favorite of the Obama campaign. Representing the crucial swing state of Florida, Wasserman Schultz became a high-profile advocate for the Obama campaign and then the White House.
"The day after the last primary, that Wednesday morning, and days before Clinton gave her concession speech, Debbie was on TV for us," said Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman. "She didn't wait to be asked; she was out there fighting for what she believes in."
That's not to say she's easily pushed around.
"I couldn't have gotten through '08 in Florida without her and she's been there every step of the way through the first term," said Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based political consultant who ran Obama's Florida operation.
"She is a tireless advocate, she's loyal, but she's not a soldier, she's a leader."
As DNC chairwoman, she is expected to serve as a fierce critic of the yet-unformed Republican field of potential challengers to Obama. She will also be a familiar advocate in Florida, a perennial swing state that she will continue to represent in the U.S. House.
Yet she faces challenges at the committee she inherits.
The DNC remained almost $18 million in debt as the end of February. The committee spent heavily in an effort to defend majorities in the U.S. Senate and House; Democratic Sen. Harry Reid remains majority leader, but Republicans captured the House and Nancy Pelosi fell from the speaker's role.
The committee also shed staff in recent weeks, trying to rein in spending and rebuild its bank accounts.
A rising star in Democratic politics, Wasserman Schultz, first won a seat in the Florida House at the age of 26 to become the chamber's youngest woman ever elected. She served eight years in the state House and four in the state Senate before running for Congress in 2004.
In the years since then, she has helped raise millions for Democrats.
In March 2009, the mother of three announced that she had breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy.
"Debbie approached cancer the way she approached everything else in her life — head on, 100 miles per hour and never give up," said Schale.
She also is a close friend of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head in January during a shooting rampage in Tucson. Six people died and 12 other people were wounded.
Wasserman Schultz was in Giffords' hospital room when she first woke up.
Wasserman Schultz grew up in New York City and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Florida.
The Wasserman Schultz decision was first reported by Politico.
Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report from Tallahassee, Fla.