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HELENA - Jim Messina, the top staffer for U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and a longtime Montana Democratic political operative, has been named chief of staff for Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Jim Messina, chief of staff for Baucus, D-Mont., since January 2005, said he'll start work at Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago next Monday.

"It's going to be the biggest challenge of my life, but it's also going to be something I deeply believe in," Messina said Monday. "With the bitter partisan divide we have in Washington, we need a president who will go past all that, and that's why I'm going to Obama."

Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, opposing Republican John McCain in the race to become the 44th president.

Messina said he'll be coordinating political policy and field operations for Obama's presidential campaign, which will expand to a 50-state operation.

"It's going to get much bigger," Messina said of the campaign. "Part of my task will be helping them grow it, and using my Montana fiscal responsibility in a frugal way."

Messina said he first got to know Obama in 2005, when Messina was "internal campaign manager" for congressional Democrats' opposition to President Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security. Baucus publicly led those efforts, effectively killing the president's proposal.

Baucus said Obama is lucky to have someone with Messina's political talents.

Obama called Messina last Thursday about the job, and Messina said he accepted on Friday after talking to Baucus. Messina said he'll be taking a leave of absence from the Baucus staff.

"There are few people on the planet with Jim's talent, quick intellect, and motivational qualities," Baucus said Monday. "We are proud to offer one of Montana's finest sons to help change this country."

On the Obama campaign, Messina will report directly to campaign manager David Plouffe.

Messina, 38, got his start working in Montana Democratic Party politics 17 years ago as a staffer for the 1991 House Democratic majority staff, and is a veteran of political campaigns across the country.

He has worked on U.S. Senate campaigns in Alaska and North Dakota, as well as Baucus' re-election campaign in 2002, and on a U.S. House campaign in New York. He also has been chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.

Messina, who grew up in Colorado and Idaho, studied journalism and political science at the University of Montana, and has a bachelor's degree in political science.

When asked whether he might end up on the White House staff if Obama wins, Messina said: "You don't assume anything. You don't ever talk about the next job. You just focus on the one you're at."

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