WASHINGTON — John Boehner could walk down most American streets without turning a head.
But the perpetually tanned, chain-smoking Ohioan might be the next House speaker and a huge force in national politics, trying to manage an increasingly libertarian-leaning Republican caucus while leading the opposition to President Barack Obama's policies.
For those who know Boehner (pronounced BAY'-nur), the question is which version of the House Republican leader will emerge as speaker if the GOP takes at least 40 seats from Democrats in November.
Will it be the policy-minded lawmaker who sometimes shows bipartisan tendencies, such as when he worked with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on major education bills?
Or will it be the fiery partisan of recent months who shouted "hell no" to Obama's health care bill and who threw the Democrats' massive economic stimulus bill to the House floor in a theatrical rebuke?
Boehner left little doubt that the president and other Democrats will face fierce resistance in the House if he is speaker, starting with a push to dismantle Obama's hard-fought health care law.
"We're going to do everything we can to prevent this law from being implemented, and I mean everything," Boehner said in a recent interview. "I think it will ruin health care and bankrupt the country."
In truth, Obama's veto powers will make it virtually impossible to repeal the law. Still, Boehner said, he would use every parliamentary and appropriations trick available, including making sure "they don't get the funds to hire employees to implement the law."
Boehner, 60, has been raising his profile in recent days, giving well-publicized speeches in Cleveland and Milwaukee criticizing Obama's economic and military policies.
Still, he knows he won't become a household name overnight. His ramped-up schedule is mainly a signal to GOP colleagues and political insiders that he's ready to assume leadership of the House – and in some respects, the entire party – if voters end four years of Democratic House control and Rep. Nancy Pelosi's speakership.
For Boehner, leading a full-throated Republican opposition to Obama and congressional Democrats might be the easy part. His bigger challenge looms on his right. Restless and uncompromisingly conservative Republicans probably will expand their ranks after tea party loyalists win some races Nov. 2.
Boehner already has a somewhat wary alliance with several younger and more dogmatic GOP members. They include Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the party's second-ranking House leader.
Cantor and two colleagues – Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – are publishing a Republican manifesto, "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders," which is promoted by a flashy video.
There's one glaring omission in the hoopla over the book: any reference to Boehner.
Republicans say there's little chance of a coup attempt if the GOP takes control of the House. But expectations have soared so high that every leadership post, including Cantor's, could be in play if they fall short.
House members elect their respective party leaders. The majority party's top leader becomes the speaker, who wields enormous influence over legislation and follows the vice president in the line of presidential succession.
Boehner scoffs at suggestions that the "young guns" might undermine his leadership.
"They are some of our brightest, most energetic members," he said in a telephone interview between campaign stops for House candidates in the Dakotas. He praised, without fully endorsing, Ryan's much-debated proposals to replace the corporate income tax with a consumption tax and to transform Medicare over time into a voucher program that wouldn't keep pace with rising health care costs.
Ryan's road map "is very good work," Boehner said. He added that he doesn't agree with everything Ryan proposes.
Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery, who worked for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Boehner will have to cope with "a bunch of rambunctious new members." He predicts partisan gridlock, but he said Boehner can effectively lead his party and its young cadre of firebreathers.
"He provides adult leadership," Feehery said.
On the surface, Boehner is a Washington throwback. He loves golf and cocktails. He is genial and courteous to almost everyone, including reporters and Democratic staffers. He constantly smokes Barclay cigarettes, even during meetings in his Capitol office. And he maintains a remarkably deep tan, which Obama and others have gently mocked.
The second of 12 children in a Catholic family from Cincinnati, Boehner played high school football and helped at his father's bar and restaurant. He worked his way through college, sometimes as a janitor, graduating from Xavier University at age 27. He rose to the top of a plastics distribution company, and entered Republican politics in his hometown.
While clearly a conservative, Boehner has sometimes worked with Democrats to enact major legislation. Notable examples include his 2001 collaboration with Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., now a top Pelosi ally, to pass President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill.
In 2008, Boehner was embarrassed when he failed to corral enough GOP votes to help the Democratic majority pass an early version of the financial bailout bill. The Dow plunged 780 points that day.
The often-emotional GOP leader seemed to choke back tears when he asked colleagues to search their souls for the nation's best interests.
The episode might suggest that Boehner is a bit less rigidly partisan than some of his fellow GOP leaders. Most House Republicans opposed the bailout bill that he backed.
Hastert, as speaker, had a "majority of the majority" rule. He would not push major legislation unless most of his GOP caucus supported it, rendering the Democratic minority almost superfluous.
Boehner says he would want to "make sure our team is supportive" of big bills, but he stopped short of embracing Hastert's rule. "All members should have a role in the legislative process," Boehner said.
Even a whiff of bipartisan cooperation angers some tea party supporters, and Boehner might clash with the newest and most ideological House Republicans. But in other respects, they might be kindred souls.
Boehner entered the House in 1991 as a windows-rattling reformer. He joined the "Gang of Seven" that insisted on naming all 355 members with overdrafts at the House Bank, a damaging scandal.
And he has long opposed earmark spending, which some lawmakers use to steer pet projects to their districts. It's a favorite conservative target this year.
Boehner was a key ally of Rep. Newt Gingrich when the firebrand Georgia lawmaker led the 1994 Republican revolution that ended four decades of Democratic House control. But Boehner lost his leadership post in the turmoil that followed the speaker's downfall in 1998. Boehner spent years quietly cultivating friendships with colleagues and planning his return to power, which came in 2005.
Now possibly on the cusp of nationwide recognition and clout, Boehner is a solid choice for a Republican Party that must harness and direct its emotions if it is to regain the ground it lost in the last two elections, said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
Kingston, an 18-year House veteran who has had his own turns in the GOP leadership, said Boehner "is a known quantity. He's not going to be saying anything stupid or doing anything stupid."
Boehner may lack Gingrich's revolutionary zeal and intellectual bent, Kingston said, but he has a steadier grasp of intramural politics.
"He'd be better able to manage that new, hard-energy reform crowd than Newt," Kingston said, adding that the House "is a political body, not an ideological body."