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Obama Confronts 'Outsider' Dilemma

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at a campaign rally at George Mason University last week. The event was organized through, a site popular with students, and Obama's advisers said it illustrated how the candidate's popularity will spread: from the grass roots.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at a campaign rally at George Mason University last week. The event was organized through, a site popular with students, and Obama's advisers said it illustrated how the candidate's popularity will spread: from the grass roots. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

In the nearly three weeks since Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made his unofficial debut as a presidential candidate, his senior advisers have been holed up in a temporary office on Connecticut Avenue NW, feverishly working to translate the huge excitement about his candidacy into a political strategy.

For all the buzz about his running, Obama did not enter the race with the conventional weapons of a presidential candidate -- a deep database of donors, a tactical road map for winning primaries or even a sign marking the entrance to his ad hoc campaign headquarters. Obama is only now starting to build a political infrastructure that matches his growing support.

But the challenge for Obama is not just assembling the nuts and bolts of a national campaign on the fly. He must, his advisers believe, do so in a way that reflects the distinct, next-generation message of his candidacy, or at least avoids making him look like every other politician in the race. "I would sooner lose the race than lose having him the way he is," said David Axelrod, his chief media strategist.

While acknowledging that there are "certain immutable realities of the process," Axelrod insisted that "the kind of things we do over time will be emblematic of the campaign that we're running. And if we are doing it right, they won't be identical to everyone else's."

That vague mission -- not unlike the one that faced both Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as relative outsiders who came late to the 2004 presidential race -- is in the hands of a growing group of respected, if not exactly unconventional, operatives who have had to spend an inordinate amount of time in the past few weeks simply mastering logistics. Led by David Plouffe, the campaign manager, the team spent the day of Obama's exploratory-committee announcement answering phones and taking down volunteers' phone numbers.

Now the advisers are beginning to implement a broader strategy. In contrast to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who spent the first two weeks of her official candidacy trying to project strength and inevitability, Obama will seek a more pared-down image that focuses on the substance of his message ("the audacity of hope," as his book title put it) rather than on proving his ability to win a general election.

Obama gave a glimpse of how his campaign will look and feel on Friday, when he delivered somber remarks at the Democratic National Committee meeting that left the audience hushed at points. No one passed out "Obama" posters; the candidate took the stage without any music, unlike some other Democratic contenders who bounded to the dais to the blaring sounds of rock-and-roll oldies.

"There are those who don't believe in talking about hope," Obama told the crowd. "They say, 'Well, we want specifics, we want details, and we want white papers, and we want plans.' We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you."

From Washington, Obama headed to Fairfax for an event that his advisers said illustrated his campaign strategy even more directly: a student rally organized through the online networking site Thousands of students attended the Web-driven event at George Mason University -- evidence, the Obama campaign said, that the popularity of its candidate will spread virally through the electorate rather than as a result of paid television ads or campaign mailings.

"Our campaign will never be the most rigid, structured, top-down, corporate-type campaign in this nomination battle," said senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs. "There are plenty of other people that can do 'politics as usual' far better than we can. But I hope we have a campaign whose support continues to expand even faster than you can put a fence around it."

Matt Bennett, a senior adviser to the Clark campaign in 2004, described the phenomenon as trying to "ride a tiger."

"It's the toughest thing to do in presidential politics, which is to walk the line between maintaining your genuine attractiveness to the grass roots and becoming a credible national candidate, because often those things are in direct conflict," he said. "He is the candidate that is exciting this huge mass of people, and he cannot let them down in a fundamental way. But he has also got to do the blocking and tackling that candidates do."

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