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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

David Axelrod is a New York City boy who has Barack Obama's ear

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David Axelrod huddles with Barack Obama on a February campaign flight.

PERCHED ATOP a mailbox near his family's apartment in Stuyvesant Town, 5-year-old David Axelrod watched intently as a charismatic John F. Kennedy rallied New Yorkers for his presidential campaign in the fall of 1960.

"I was so taken by the scene and by him and what seemed so important and so magical," recalled Axelrod, chief strategist of Barack Obama's White House bid. "That's what really sort of began to fire my interest in politics and in news."

Axelrod, 53, has called Chicago home all of his adult life. But the ex-newspaperman - an affable, down-to-earth fellow known for his droopy mustache and schlumpy attire - is a born-and-bred New Yorker.

"New York sensitized me to the diversity of our country and it also kind of fired my passion about urban politics," he said.

As a kid, he worked on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, distributing leaflets.

"I remember the two of us heading over to Bobby Kennedy's campaign headquarters on Madison Avenue and volunteering to do stuff," said Robert Swidler, a longtime friend.

Axelrod's sister, Joan Lehrich, 58, said David "knew more about politics in New York than any kid his age."

He graduated from Stuyvesant High School and headed west to the University of Chicago, not expecting to make his life and fame in the Second City. But he did.

"I fell in love with Chicago, as well as fell in love with a woman from Chicago, which has its own draw," said Axelrod. He and his wife, Susan, have three children.

He became a star political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, then switched careers in 1984 to help guide Democrat Paul Simon's upset win over three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Charles Percy.

In 1992, Betty Lu Saltzman, a friend and well-known Chicago Democrat, told him about this "most impressive young guy" named Barack Obama.

"She said, 'I know this seems odd, but I think he could be the first African-American President,'" he recalled.

Axelrod thought that sounded "grandiose" - but he was curious. "I went over and saw him and he was extraordinarily impressive. He was thoughtful. He had this great intellectual curiosity about everything. I liked him."

When Obama decided to run for the Senate in 2004, Axelrod turned down candidates with deeper pockets and better odds to join him. "I thought, you know, if you could ever help Barack Obama get elected to the United States Senate, you'd be doing something really special."

Obama won by a landslide.

He recalled an ad from 2004, which ended with Obama talking about how people say, "We can't" change Washington, but "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message to say, 'Yes, we can.'"

"Michelle [Obama] was sitting there, and he said, 'Is it too corny?' Michelle looked at him and said, 'It's not corny.' [so Obama said] 'Okay, let's do it.'"

"It kind of caught on," Axelrod said modestly. "It was perfect, really." And it was reprised for 2008, with Axelrod the guiding force behind Obama's message as the "change" candidate.

Axelrod, perpetually in motion, said he sleeps four or five hours a night. Aides said he's the one most likely to call at 3 a.m.

John Del Cecato, a political consultant colleague, described Axelrod as a "huge multitasker." He recalled one car ride to the airport as "truly frightening."

"I was watching in silent horror as we were rushing to make the flight, weaving through traffic, all while he was on the phone with a reporter and eating a slice of pizza," Del Cecato recalled.

Del Cecato joked Axelrod's eating-while-working habit has taken its toll: "He's the only person I know to have a glaze-related BlackBerry malfunction."

New York is still in Axelrod's blood. His favorite Chicago restaurant is Manny's, a New York-style deli.

He has come back to work on a slew of New York campaigns, including Fernando Ferrer's unsuccessful runs for mayor and Eliot Spitzer's attorney general reelection bid.

As a Chicagoan, he has forsaken the Mets of his youth for the Cubs and White Sox.

Still, "I'm always going to be part New Yorker," he said

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