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The man behind the message

Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod may be the most powerful political consultant not on a coast.

February 15, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Sen. Barack Obama strode into a hotel ballroom filled with expectation one recent Tuesday and declared that his quest for the Oval Office, which "began as a whisper in Springfield, has swelled to a chorus of millions calling for change."

That's the essence of the Illinois senator's message: Obama equals change; Hillary Rodham Clinton equals status quo. All else cascades from there. In this contest -- where the candidates are but a micron apart on most policy matters -- message is everything.

This simple theme has powered Obama to victory in 23 contests, most recently three days ago during the "Potomac primaries," when he added Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to his win list.

The keeper of that message is David Axelrod, political reporter turned political consultant, and Obama's chief strategist.

The burly 52-year-old with the drooping mustache helped put together the team working to get Obama elected. He oversees ad creation and coordinates with the campaign's pollsters. During preparation for debates, he plays Clinton.

When not at Obama's side on the campaign trail, he is most often in front of a television camera or otherwise surrounded by reporters, talking about the man he calls "my friend." Asked point-blank what he does all day, he recently responded: "Schmooze."

Axelrod is described as Obama's answer to Karl Rove and the most powerful political consultant not on a coast. And at a time when New York Sen. Clinton is shaking up her own campaign staff, he is someone, said one political observer, who "ain't going to be fired."

On Super Tuesday -- arguably the most critical day of Obama's yearlong journey, with 22 states up for grabs -- Axelrod was a mix of sweet nostalgia and sharp elbows.

9:30 p.m. CST: "I got into politics because I believe in idealism. Just to be a part of this effort that seems to be rekindling the kind of idealism that I knew when I was a kid, it's a great thing to do. So I find myself getting very emotional about it."

11:30 p.m., declaring victory in the face of a draw: "What was once inevitable is no longer inevitable."

Asked about Clinton campaign staffers' claims that their candidate would do well in the upcoming contests in Pennsylvania and Texas: "They also said that the campaign's going to end tonight."

Fifteen years ago, David Axelrod was a political consultant based in Chicago, where Barack Obama, fresh from Harvard Law School and largely unknown, was coordinating a voter registration drive. One day Axelrod got a call from a friend.

"She said, 'I just met the most extraordinary person,' " he recounted. " 'I think he may be the president of the United States one day.' And I thought, 'That's kind of a grandiose thing to say.' "

The men met and became friendly. When Axelrod heard in 2002 that Obama was considering a Senate run, he thought, "What a difference he could make."

"There was not an African American in the U.S. Senate, and there were very few people of his caliber," Axelrod recounted. "He was not a front-runner at that point. He was quite the underdog. But I told him I wanted to work with him."

Axelrod describes that collaboration as "a great adventure," in which a little-known state senator "overcame all kinds of obstacles and all kinds of odds. I was proud of him then. I was proud of him as a public official."

Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, said Axelrod and Obama emerged from that hard-fought race with a unique relationship.

"A lot of times, consultants don't know the clients that well and aren't plugged into their particular political philosophy or vision," Carrick said, but "this tight bond they have makes them effective together."

Axelrod raised eyebrows in liberal circles for working on the mayoral campaign of Democrat Richard M. Daley, son of the man who brand-named Chicago's political machine, but his client list generally runs to progressive Democratic candidates. Obama was a natural fit.

He had left the Chicago Tribune in 1984 to manage the Senate campaign of Paul Simon, then a socially liberal Illinois congressman.

As a political writer, Axelrod covered Harold Washington's run to become the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983; four years later, he worked on Washington's successful reelection effort. He was part of Deval Patrick's successful 2006 campaign to become the first black governor of Massachusetts. Today, Patrick stumps for Obama.

At one point or another, Axelrod worked for five of the eight candidates for 2008 Democratic nominee. He was part of John Edwards' White House bid four years ago, and he helped get Tom Vilsack elected -- and reelected -- as the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 30 years. He has worked for Clinton and Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, both of whom -- along with Edwards, Obama and Clinton's husband -- have returned the favor, pitching in for a cause close to Axelrod's heart: raising money for an epilepsy cure.

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