Durbin then raised his eyes from the report and addressed the chamber: “If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, this is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.”

Conservatives went ballistic. Right-wing bloggers and media blasted Durbin and accused him of having compared American soldiers to Nazis. Talk show hosts derided him as “Turban Durbin.” Columnist Michelle Malkin branded him a traitor: “There is a war on. Durbin has shown us which side he’s on.” In the Weekly Standard, radio ranter Hugh Hewitt called for the Senate to censure Durbin. Newt Gingrich demanded similar action, and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.)–who knows about controversial statements–urged Durbin to resign his leadership position. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld equated Durbin with Jane Fonda. Other administration officials and Republican senators piled on. Less than a week after Durbin’s speech, a Google search for “Durbin Guantanamo Nazis” produced 44,000 hits. As the assault continued, even Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat whose son is currently serving in Iraq, publicly scolded Durbin, his political ally.

Durbin’s comments–though not necessarily inaccurate–were ill-advised. As a rule, politicians ought to steer clear of comparisons to Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, and the like. Still, this rule has been broken before without reactions coming close to this level of fury. In March, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) compared the Republican threat to end the judicial filibuster to Hitler’s grab for power. A few months later, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) likened Senate Democrats who opposed the “nuclear option” to Hitler. Both comments drew complaints–but nothing like what happened to Durbin. What was it about his remarks that caused the right-wingers to aim such massive firepower at a 60-year-old, second-term senator whom most Americans had never heard of until that week?

The answer is that they went after Durbin because he’s a threat. A triple threat, in fact. Today’s Republicans may not be competent at planning wars or managing the federal treasury, but when it comes to the politics of attack, they know what they’re doing. And they know whom to target. In the last six months, Democrats have scored political successes with an oppositional strategy that has made life difficult for Republicans on Social Security reform, judicial nominations, and the John Bolton confirmation. Durbin, a sharp tactician, has been Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s chief partner in concocting that strategy and its details. Durbin is also good in front of a television camera and is often cited by Democrats as the party leader who can best argue the Democrats’ case in the media. (He outshines Reid in this regard.) And Durbin, an active member of the judiciary committee and one of the toughest questioners in the Senate, is expected to assume a leading role in the battle over over Bush’s nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

Until the Gitmo dustup, this behind-closed-doors tactician, effective public advocate, and dutiful committee-room battler had been virtually untouched by the right-wing attack machine. But this assault against Durbin was serious–“he’s fighting for his political life,” one Durbin aide said in the middle of the episode–and a reminder of the dangers of being a high-profile opponent of Republicans these days. CNN reported that Republicans were crowing that the Durbin offensive was part of a larger project to go after Democratic leaders, including party chief Howard Dean and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The controversy–in which Durbin eventually backed down–also raised the question: What are Democrats willing to risk to be a fierce opposition party?

Prior to the Guantanamo hullabaloo, Durbin was routinely hailed by Democrats as one of their party’s strongest assets in the Capitol, and it has not been hard to find Democratic professionals who go ga-ga over Durbin. Todd Webster, who was communications director for Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), gushed to me, “He’s the smartest, the quickest on his feet, the most persuasive floor debater. He’s great on television. He argues the Democratic position better than anyone. He’s not preachy or screechy; he’s tough and folksy. He does get it. He is the great white hope for Democrats.” It was a sign of Durbin’s popularity among Senate Democrats that he was not challenged for the position of Democratic whip when Reid moved from that post to the leader’s position in January.

As whip, Durbin’s main job is to watch the Senate floor and monitor legislation and pending votes. His responsibilities also include generating support for party positions (the term “whip” comes from “whipper-in”–that’s the person in a fox hunt charged with keeping the dogs from straying) and holding together his caucus. It’s a tough job to corral a group of people with large egos, ambitions, and their own agendas–several of whom hum “Hail to the Chief” to themselves daily. Perhaps most importantly, Durbin and Reid aim to develop strategy to thwart the Republicans while presenting Democrats as more than just a “just-say-no” party.

This spring, for example, when Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations, Durbin devised the Democrats’ contingency plan in case Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) pushed the nuclear button. In such an event, under the Durbin plan, the Democrats would take advantage of the Senate rules–which virtually allow any senator to bring up legislation at any time–and continually introduce popular initiatives: expanding tax credits for health care, raising the minimum wage, and releasing oil from the strategic petroleum reserve to counter the rising price of gasoline. The strategy held three benefits. First, it would clutter up the Senate calendar, limiting the time Republicans had for their own priorities. Second, because Democrats would be proposing real legislation, Republicans would have a harder time casting them as mere obstructionists. Finally, it would put Republicans on record as voting against measures many Americans support. One of the first bills Durbin lined up for recurring votes was legislation intended to reduce abortion rates by requiring private drug plans to cover prescription contraceptives. Such legislation would place Republicans in the awkward position of opposing a measure designed to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies. The counter-nuclear plan devised by Durbin may well have motivated several Republicans to reject Frist’s nuclear option and seek a compromise. (After 14 so-called moderate Democratic and Republican senators brokered a deal that apparently–or perhaps temporarily–defused the standoff, Durbin said the arrangement was “not what I would choose” but “the alternative could have been much worse.”)

In his committee work, Durbin, a lawyer, has been one of the better cross-examiners in the Senate. In 2001, during John Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings, Durbin forcefully questioned the attorney general nominee about the harsh campaign Ashcroft had waged as a senator against Ronnie White, an African-American Missouri supreme court judge nominated to the federal bench. At one point, Durbin even managed to catch Ashcroft in an apparent fib about his anti-White crusade. Though the Republican was ultimately confirmed, Durbin says that dramatic confrontation remains one of his favorite moments in the Senate.

In a lesser-known showdown that year, Durbin grilled John Graham, an anti-regulation, industry-funded champion of cost-benefit analysis, who had been picked by Bush to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (OIRA, a little-known government office, oversees public health, workplace safety, and environmental standards.) Durbin questioned Graham about his claim that “the evidence on pesticide residue on food as a health problem is virtually nonexistent.” The National Academy of Sciences, Durbin observed, had recognized a need to protect children from pesticides. Graham defended his position. Then Durbin asked Graham what he knew of methyl parathion. “Not much,” Graham said. “Methyl parathion,” Durbin explained, was one of “the most toxic pesticides and the EPA had restricted its use in 1999 after studies found that methyl parathion residues on fruits and vegetables posed risks to children.” Graham had no good response. “I haven’t studied that particular example,” he said. Durbin had out-wonked the wonk. It was ultimately a futile effort; the Republican-controlled committee voted 9 to 3 in favor of Graham’s nomination. But that’s what has distinguished Durbin. With little chance of winning the fight–in part due to his fellow Democrats’ reluctance to wage this particular battle–Durbin would not let even an appointee for an obscure position pass by unchallenged.

In a party that often is split between those who accommodate Republicans and those who are more committed to opposition, Durbin is firmly in the opposition camp. He has been a solid member of the liberal voting bloc. When 23 Democratic senators voted against handing Bush the preauthorization to invade Iraq, Durbin was among them. He was one of 13 who said nay to Condoleezza Rice’s appointment as secretary of state. He led the unsuccessful fights against the pro-industry bankruptcy bill and the legislation to move many major class-action lawsuits against corporations from state courts to federal courts. And in 2003, he tried to withhold money from the intelligence budget until Bush submitted a report to Congress detailing his use of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq (Republicans voted this measure down). “He’s one of the few senators willing to oppose judicial nominees who will end up being confirmed because he cares about the principle,” said Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal outfit that was in the thick of the filibuster fight.

Given his liberal voting record and confrontational style, one might expect Durbin to rank with Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Nancy Pelosi on the list of conservative bogeymen and bogeywomen. But–until the Guantanamo controversy–he was not a high-value target of the right and didn’t suffer from a reputation as a capital-L liberal. How did Durbin manage to survive for so long unscathed? Well, for one thing, his seat is relatively safe–he defeated his opponents by more than 15 points in each of his Senate races. So the Republicans have not been able to demonize him during competitive campaigns. But the best explanation is: It’s that Midwestern thing.

As one consultant who has worked with Durbin remarked, “His voting record is no different than Barbara Boxer or Ted Kennedy. He’s as partisan as anyone. But he doesn’t turn people off.” Noting that the far-from-flashy Durbin hails from a downstate district where he often had to speak to non-liberals, John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, said, “Durbin’s great skill is being plain-spoken. He’s one of the few senators who doesn’t talk in Senate-ese.” With a wide and plain face and a broad and stocky build, Durbin can play the part of the Midwesterner he is. “He looks like a guy who owns a neighborhood shoe store,” a Durbin aide commented. How does Durbin see it? “A Midwestern perspective on issues appeals to a lot of people,” he told me. “People do tell me, I like the way you analyze an issue and explain it. If I have any talent or gift, that’s it. I think there’s a reason why Johnny Carson was on the ‘Tonight Show’ for so long. Midwest is an acceptable idiom.” This skill has not gone unnoticed by his opponents: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has called Durbin “one of the best populist speakers in America.”

Durbin–in style and temperament, both crucial in politics–is no East Coast or West Coast liberal. He is an East St. Louis native whose Irish-American father and born-in-Lithuania mother were railroad employees and union members. Earlier this year, in a speech that carried on the prairie populist tradition of his late colleague Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Durbin decried the bankruptcy bill, which made it harder for middle-income families in dire financial straits to seek relief via bankruptcy laws:

As a senator, Durbin has been known as a cause-oriented politician. But that was not always his reputation. Durbin entered politics upon graduating from Georgetown law school in 1969 when he joined the staff of Illinois Lt. Gov. Paul Simon. He moved on to serve as legal counsel to Democrats in the state senate and parliamentarian for the Illinois Senate, where he developed the deep understanding of the intricacies of legislative process that make him so valuable to Senate Democrats today. In 1982, Durbin challenged Republican Congressman Paul Findley, an 11-term incumbent who held the House seat once belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Findley had declared himself Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat’s best friend in Congress–a boast that helped Durbin raise a ton of money from pro-Israel contributors. Durbin won the seat by 1,410 votes, or 0.7 percent.

In the House, Durbin’s voting record was liberal. A Catholic, he started out a foe of abortion and turned into a reliable supporter of abortion rights. As a member of the powerful appropriations committee, he was pegged within the world of Illinois politics as the go-to guy for help squeezing money out of Washington. His mentor, Paul Simon, at this point a U.S. senator, was the exemplar of the issues-driven, above-the-political-fray legislator; Durbin was a more conventional pol, working the system and sending bacon not just to his district but to the entire state. “If you needed an appropriation, Simon would write a letter and forget about it,” a former Simon aide recalled. “Dick Durbin would walk across the hall, cut a deal with the chairman, and get the money.”

In late 1994, Simon announced his retirement. Durbin ran for the Senate seat as a son of the working class who had mounted crusades against Big Tobacco and the gun lobby. He beat a Republican social conservative 56 to 41 percent. In the Senate, he continued his campaign against tobacco and gun interests. He pushed consumer issues, proposing a food protection law and opposing patent extensions for pharmaceutical firms. And he became a trusted advisor to Daschle. Without creating much noise, Durbin evolved into one of the more consistent and combative progressives in the Senate, a valuable role in the shrinking Democratic caucus.

Through Durbin’s rise, his Republican foes were not able to find a good line of attack against him. During the Nigergate affair in 2003–when Durbin joined those criticizing Bush for having wrongly claimed that Iraq had been shopping in Africa for uranium to be used in a nuclear weapons program–Republicans and the White House accused Durbin of disclosing classified information and tried to have him booted from the intelligence committee. That effort petered out. Marshall Wittmann, who was a top aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) until he defected to the Democratic Leadership Council last year, recalled that Senate Republicans “wanted to penetrate Durbin’s mild veneer and were frustrated they couldn’t get past his mild-mannered armor.”

Perhaps Durbin’s absence from the Democratic Party’s presidential sweepstakes also afforded him protection from the right-wing attack machinery. Despite his talents as a politician, strategist, and policy hound, he has–almost oddly–shown no interest in the commander-in-chief position. “No presidential talk comes from him,” says a consultant who has worked with Durbin for years. “Absolutely zero.” This spring, Durbin said he had “no plan” to consider a presidential run: “You have to reach a point when it really grabs you.” By all appearances he has been steadfastly ungrabbed. Perhaps the Guantanamo episode will reinforce Durbin’s preexisting reluctance to consider higher office. But, more importantly, what remained unclear in the immediate aftermath of the GOP’s anti-Durbin blitzkrieg was whether the assault would cause Durbin long-term damage and hinder one of the Democrats’ most effective advocates and strategists.

The second day into the controversy over Durbin’s comments, several GOP senators–John Warner, Mitch McConnell, and Jeff Sessions–took to the Senate floor to chastise Durbin. As soon as Durbin heard about this, he hurried to the chamber. There he vigorously defended himself and once again read the observations of the FBI agent who had witnessed the terrible conditions at Guantanamo. The next day, as the onslaught continued, Durbin was still defiant. “My statement in the Senate was critical of the policies of this administration which add to the risk our soldiers face,” he declared, warning that he would not be silenced: “I will continue to speak out when I disagree with this administration.” But Durbin ultimately apologized the following Tuesday. (Three days after he apologized, Agence France-Presse, quoting a United Nations source, reported that U.S. officials had acknowledged in a report submitted to the United Nations that torture had occurred at Guantanamo.)

Though some conservatives still howled for Durbin’s scalp following his apology, leading Republicans retracted their claws. They had drawn blood. (Democrats subsequently mounted something of a counter-offensive by pouncing on Karl Rove after he claimed that, following 9/11, liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding” to the terrorists). It seemed that Democrats’ great hope in the Senate had made it through the controversy. And he would not face reelection until 2008 in a state that’s generally good for Democrats.

Yet what of the here and now? Durbin surely will be careful with his rhetoric. There’s nothing wrong with that. But will he and his colleagues be more cautious? Waging an in-your-face opposition comes with risks. As GOPers have long understood, fierce political confrontation can lead to miscues and mistakes. (Anyone remember Newt Gingrich?) A party that wants to triumph has to accept those risks and not be cowed by the attacks, fair or unfair, that follow. These high-octane, media-driven, partisan spats and disputes may often appear to be trivial or distractions, but they are part of policy and electoral warfare that is real and epochal. The Democrats are not going to win that battle unless they–and Durbin–move past the Gitmo imbroglio and remain fully engaged in the ugly fray.