June 20, 2008; Page A6
CHICAGO -- In the days since Barack Obama claimed the Democratic presidential nomination, campaign manager David Plouffe has redecorated his spartan office at the headquarters 11 floors above Michigan Avenue's "Magnificent Mile." He's replaced state maps for the final party primaries with national maps. The main one shows states' electoral-college votes -- the keys to election against Republican John McCain.
|'I didn't want a screamer,' Barack Obama says in lauding campaign manager David Plouffe's low-key style.|
Wherever on the map Mr. Plouffe wants to send Sen. Obama between now and November, the Illinois senator is sure to go.
The candidate gives much of the credit for his giant-killer victory against Hillary Clinton to his manager. "I think very rarely have you seen in a presidential campaign somebody conceptualize a campaign and then execute as flawlessly as David did," Sen. Obama says in an interview.
Mr. Plouffe was the only person Sen. Obama offered the manager's job, in December 2006. "He wasn't as high-profile as some other possibilities," Sen. Obama says. Doubters questioned whether the lean and low-key Mr. Plouffe "would be a hard-charging-enough guy." But "the fact that he was even-keeled suited me and the kind of campaign I wanted to run. I didn't want a screamer."
In an age of cable-television political celebrity, the 41-year-old Mr. Plouffe, pronounced "pluff," wants none of it. He refuses interviews for any story about him and asks colleagues to stay mum. Even his wife Olivia Morgan, a political hand who relocated to Chicago from Washington for the campaign with Mr. Plouffe and their baby, politely declines to comment and asks that their three-year-old son go unnamed. "I'd love to keep him Google-proof till, say, kindergarten," she emails.
But while a campaign manager can gag the staff, muzzling the candidate is another matter. Sen. Obama readily talked about his manager's role in a historic campaign that has put him in line to be the first African-American nominee of a major party.
Their bond and the stability of the Obama inner circle contrast with the chaos his rivals experienced. Both Sens. Clinton and McCain started with core advisers with histories of bad blood among themselves, and their campaigns ultimately endured major, damaging shake-ups.
While Sen. McCain had a head start for November, having clinched his party's nomination four months ago, Sen. Obama leads organizationally. It's the silver lining of his prolonged combat with Sen. Clinton. Having campaigned in nearly every state, he built grassroots bases in most and has a big edge in funds and volunteers.
It's all part of a "50-state strategy" aimed at forcing Republicans to fight for long-friendly turf in the South, West and suburbs that Democrats typically ceded. In recent years, general-election campaigns took place in little more than a dozen so-called battleground states. "There are going to be more states in play than at any time in recent memory," says senior adviser David Axelrod. To that end, staffers are registering new voters nationwide.
Mr. Axelrod and Mr. Plouffe remain the team's core. Mr. Axelrod has known Sen. Obama longer, 16 years, and is the "more public face," Mr. Axelrod acknowledges. But Mr. Plouffe "is the unsung hero," he says, building an organization from scratch, making it cohesive and bringing "an unparalleled understanding of the process, which proved absolutely critical."
The men's "strategic sympatico," says Chicago Rep. Rahm Emanuel, recalls the rapport between him, James Carville and others atop Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Yet the Obama team has a discipline that Mr. Clinton's seat-of-the-pants campaign lacked.
Democratic consultant Jenny Backus recalls how in 2006 Mr. Plouffe had insisted over lunch, "'I am not doing another presidential race."' He'd worked in three races, now had a baby, and had joined Mr. Axelrod's Chicago consulting firm. There he'd met the young Illinois state senator Mr. Axelrod was helping to get elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
But soon Sen. Obama was calling. "I was immediately impressed with the precision of his mind and the steadiness of his temper, which fit my own," Sen. Obama says. And Mr. Plouffe had other attributes the senator wanted: He knew about presidential politics, Iowa's caucuses, and party rules for convention delegates.
Mr. Plouffe worked on presidential campaigns for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992 and House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt in 2004. He also worked on Mr. Gephardt's exploratory effort for 2000. All three focused on winning Iowa's opener.
Sen. Obama says he knew if he were to be successful, "we'd have to be successful in Iowa."
In the Gephardt campaign, Mr. Plouffe had worked with Jeffrey Berman, a master of Democrats' delegate rules. Those give winners and losers delegates in proportion to their share of the vote state-wide and, typically, in congressional districts. Mr. Plouffe knew the 435 House districts from four years with Rep. Gephardt. He brought Mr. Berman to the Obama campaign to help with the rules.
Sen. Obama says Mr. Plouffe predicted from the start that the race could turn on delegates. Typically, party contests hinged on momentum and perceptions: Early-state winners attracted media and money, forcing out candidates starved for both. Mr. Plouffe saw that with two popular and well-funded rivals able to go the distance and splitting the states -- delegate counts could be decisive.
But for a time it wasn't clear Sen. Obama would get that far. Last fall, he was 20 points behind Sen. Clinton in national polls. Donors and big-name backers called and emailed Mr. Plouffe demanding a change of strategy to attack her harder, Sen. Obama says. He says his manager insisted he should ignore national polls and focus on Iowa -- Sen. Obama was in close contention, and the campaign's organization would deliver on caucus night. It did, giving Sen. Obama a big win.
Overconfidence set in. Sen. Obama says the campaign expected he'd next win New Hampshire, then maybe Nevada and certainly South Carolina. Then "we'd have that head of steam," he says, and "it would be over on Feb. 5" -- Super Tuesday -- with 20-plus contests.
But Sen. Clinton won New Hampshire, shocking even herself. Mr. Plouffe held a conference call for hundreds of despondent staffers nationwide. According to one, he told them calmly, "Everyone did a great job. I've never been more confident." He ended, "Now let's go win this f- thing."
His confidence was based on the delegate math. Sen. Obama says, "David did a masterful job of mapping out a strategy that would go well beyond Feb. 5," deploying staff and funds to execute it. The Clinton campaign fatally didn't. Divided over strategy, low on funds, it effectively forfeited states with hard-to-organize caucuses, allowing Sen. Obama to build a delegate lead.
Sen. Obama says he questioned the strategy just once. In the week before Super Tuesday, polls in California showed him gaining. He told Mr. Plouffe: "You know, if we win California, that sends a pretty strong signal" -- why not campaign more there, instead of Idaho and Utah?
Mr. Plouffe argued that even with a win in California, the rivals would roughly split the state's huge delegate treasure, while Sen. Obama could net more delegates overall with overwhelming wins in the small states. "That was a hard decision," the senator says now. Other advisers weighed in, "but ultimately it was he and I who made the final decision."