Harry Hamburg, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2011, file photo Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. According to Democratic officials she will be the next chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, replacing current chairman Tim Kaine.

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 to the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

"In selecting Debbie to lead our party, President Obama noted her tenacity, her strength, her fighting spirit and her ability to overcome adversity."

Wasserman Schultz, who backed one-time Obama rival Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 presidential primary, quickly became a favorite of the Obama campaign. Hailing from 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 will be crucial to Obama's re-election bid.

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 won the majority in 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 helped raise millions for the committee during previous election cycles.

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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 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.

The Wasserman Schultz decision was first reported by Politico.

Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report from Tallahassee, Fla.