KAREN TUMULTY, Time
Barack Obama was campaigning last October in South Carolina when he got an urgent call from Penny Pritzker, the hotel heiress who leads his campaign's finance committee. About 200 of his biggest fund raisers were meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, and among them, near panic was setting in. Pritzker's team had raised money faster than any other campaign ever had. Its candidate was drawing mega-crowds wherever he went. Yet he was still running at least 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in polls. His above-the-fray brand of politics just wasn't getting the job done, and some of his top moneymen were urging him to rethink his strategy, shake up his staff, go negative. You'd better get here, Pritzker told Obama. And fast.
Obama made an unscheduled appearance that Sunday night and called for a show of hands from his finance committee. "Can I see how many people in this room I told that this was going to be easy?" he asked. "If anybody signed up thinking it was going to be easy, then I didn't make myself clear." A win in Iowa, Obama promised, would give him the momentum he needed to win across the map — but his backers wouldn't see much evidence of progress before then. "We're up against the most formidable team in 25 years," he said. "But we've got a plan, and we've got to have faith in it."
More than seven months later, that faith has been rewarded. The 2008 presidential campaign has produced its share of surprises, but one of the most important is that a newcomer from Chicago put together by far the best political operation of either party. Obama's campaign has been that rare, frictionless machine that runs with the energy of an insurgency and the efficiency of a corporation. His team has lacked what his rivals' have specialized in: there have been no staff shake-ups, no financial crises, no change in game plan and no visible strife. Even its campaign slogan — "Change we can believe in" — has remained the same.
How did he do it? How did Obama become the first Democratic insurgent in a generation or more to knock off the party's Establishment front-runner? Facing an operation as formidable as Clinton's, Obama says in an interview, "was liberating ... What I'd felt was that we could try some things in a different way and build an organization that reflected my personality and what I thought the country was looking for. We didn't have to unlearn a bunch of bad habits."