A year ago, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was viewed by the media and political pundits as overly ambitious, a man who would stick a shiv in the back of Speaker John Boehner if he thought it would hasten his ascension to Speaker of the House.
But beginning in 2013, the Virginia Republican moved to soften his public Image and realign himself with Boehner, rarely breaking with him on major legislation and playing team ball inside the Republican leadership. All the while, Cantor has quietly worked behind the scenes to strengthen his ties with Tea Party members, and solicit the views of a wide range of the House rank-and-file on an agenda that he believes will win over voters in 2014.
By repositioning himself and creating an agenda GOP lawmakers can tout back home, Cantor has solidified his position as the heir apparent should Boehner, 64, give up the speakership in 2015, as some lawmakers believe he will.
Presiding over the badly split GOP conference, with pragmatists and hard-line conservatives often at each other's throats, has clearly taken a toll on the affable Boehner, who rose in Congress by promoting a "bottom-up" leadership style that gives members a major role in crafting legislation. If Republicans don't seize the Senate in next fall's elections, ending the gridlock with the Republican House, the chances of Boehner leaving may rise.
For Cantor, 2014 is shaping up as a pivotal year in his political career. With tough issues still facing the House and the midterm elections coming up in November, he'll need to unite the chamber's competing factions to demonstrate his readiness to step in as Boehner's successor.
"Whatever differences we may have among ourselves pale in comparison to the differences that we have with the Left and the Democrats," Cantor said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. "Really one of the goals I'm setting out to do is about forging consensus among like-minded people."
Cantor won't even talk about the possibility of becoming the next speaker. He said he's focused on ensuring that Republicans over the next four years retain their majority in the House, win the Senate and take the White House.
His 2014 House agenda began taking shape in 2012, about a week after an election in which President Obama trounced Republican Mitt Romney and Republicans lost Senate seats, dashing any hopes for a Republican-run Congress.
In the glum week following the election, Cantor was transfixed by a postelection survey that showed voters overwhelmingly believed that Democrats, not Republicans, cared most about their concerns.
"Our numbers were insanely underwater," one Cantor aide recalled.
Cantor quickly set out to reshape the House GOP's Image by promoting legislation aimed at winning over working-class and middle-class voters and not just the affluent Americans lampooned as country club Republicans.
He essentially relaunched himself, as well as the GOP agenda he oversees as the House majority leader, in a speech he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in February.
The speech, entitled "Making Life Work," showed a kinder, gentler Eric Cantor, who outlined the GOP agenda for the 113th Congress by weaving it into stories about everyday Americans struggling to survive job loss, navigate poor public schools and afford high college tuition.
The speech also included a call to legalize some immigrant children brought to the United States illegally by their parents, something House Republicans long opposed at the cost of Hispanic votes.
"Over the next two years," Cantor told the AEI crowd, "the House majority will pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness, and prosperity for more Americans and their families. And to restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits."
Cantor told the Examiner that year two of his agenda begins in January.
"We've got a big challenge in 2014," Cantor said. "This president has been outward in his position that his No. 1 goal in 2014 is to take back the House for his party. We're not going to let that happen, but it's going to take a lot of work for us to make sure that we are not only readying the proper kinds of policy solutions for people's problems, but also to be able to communicate that, and fend off some of the inaccuracies, and I would say misleading, attacks that the president and his political team have been about lately."
January will mark the start of Cantor's 12th year in the GOP leadership, an impressive tenure for a man who turned 50 in June.
Before he was first elected to Congress in 2001, the Richmond native had already served in the Virginia House of Delegates for nearly a decade.
In the House of Representatives, Cantor rocketed up the leadership ranks beginning in 2003, the start of his second term. That's when House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., tapped him to serve as his chief deputy whip.
The appointment handed Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, a ticket to the inner leadership circle that he has easily held onto ever since, even though all the other GOP leaders he looked up to as a rookie are now gone.
Those who were in on the decision process say Blunt tapped the inexperienced Cantor because of his work ethic and his ability to focus on getting individual lawmakers on board to move key legislation.
"We had three or four candidates," one former aide recalled. But it was Cantor "who was really able to identify what members needed and understand that it is very important to bring not only policy ideas, but solutions that the members can tout back at home."
Now in his second term as majority leader, Cantor is still working closely with members, putting together small working groups that are developing legislation that would improve the economy, boost jobs and create educational opportunities.
Bills will likely be focused on reducing government regulations, expanding drilling for oil and natural gas and improving federal workforce training.
Cantor is also inviting GOP members, both conservative and moderate, to monthly roundtable discussions.
"I enjoy my relationship with Eric," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Tea Party conservative elected in 2010 who has been invited to the roundtable discussions even though he frequently votes against the leadership.
Labrador is among a small group of disgruntled Republicans who two years ago deemed Boehner too moderate to return for a second term as speaker. Labrador led the faction's unsuccessful attempt to block Boehner's re-election on the opening day of the 113th Congress. Cantor was the group's choice to replace him.
Cantor is considered to be the right of Boehner on some issues and has clashed with him at times over major legislation, including the January 2013 "fiscal cliff" deal co-authored by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor voted against the deal, which raised taxes on upper-income earners. Boehner supported the legislation.
But the fiscal cliff clash was one of Cantor's last major splits with Boehner. In December, Cantor and Boehner both pushed for passage of a budget deal that ended some of the sequester-driven budget cuts, despite protests from conservatives who said the spending cuts were essential to reducing the deficit.
Rep. John Fleming, a Tea Party-backed conservative serving his third term, said Cantor's position can be confusing for some hard-right lawmakers who admire his otherwise conservative record.
"The thing that is difficult to decipher for guys like me, who are conservative, is that Eric Cantor has to align himself with the leadership," Fleming told the Examiner. "So sometimes he may actually support a bill that he personally has reservations about. I don't hold it against him. I think Eric Cantor is more conservative than the leadership position in general."
But Cantor is conservative enough to succeed Boehner, six-term Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, of California, said.
"I think if Eric Cantor wants to be speaker in the future and Boehner decides to retire," Nunes said, "Eric will have the votes."