Message, Method Are Behind Obama's Climb

By Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 22, 2007

DES MOINES -- Steve Hildebrand, the veteran political operative selected to plot a victory for Sen. Barack Obama in Iowa, drew a deep breath and began his pitch.

At the other end of the phone line was a 27-year-old schoolteacher from a town northeast of Des Moines. The man had attended at least four Obama events, and his wife was an Obama precinct captain. But he still was not ready to commit.

"Give me a sense of where your head is at," Hildebrand said calmly.

"Today, I've probably gone from Edwards to Obama to Richardson back to Edwards to Obama," the man responded. When Hildebrand hung up 22 minutes later, he had scribbled a list of position papers to send to the potential supporter to review, on topics including nuclear power, new coal technology and school testing.

It was scarcely 15 months ago that the young senator from neighboring Illinois, billed as "a rising star in Democratic politics," appeared as the guest speaker at the annual steak fry sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democratic Party's highest-profile event of the year. Today Obama is drawing among the largest crowds in Iowa caucus history and is among the front-runners. His bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination seems less improbable by the day.

Obama's strategy is one part message, one part elbow grease, following the Iowa maxim "organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end." Obama will spend the campaign's final days rallying Democrats in gymnasiums and auditoriums. But behind the scenes, the onetime Chicago community organizer has dispatched an army of paid staff and volunteers occupying a record 37 offices across the state to wage a more personal battle for support, one wavering teacher at a time.

"We feel strong and positive, but urgent at the same time," said Hildebrand, who ran Iowa for Al Gore in 2000. "We know we've got a lot to do. Barack has to close the deal, our operation has to produce, and if we do both of those things, there's a good potential that Barack could come out the winner."

Obama has bounced relentlessly between the East Coast and the Midwest over the past months, seeking to bring some of the momentum he has built in Iowa to New Hampshire, which will vote five days after the first-in-the nation caucuses. After a brief trip home to Chicago for Christmas, Obama will return to Iowa on Dec. 26 with reinforcements: his wife, Michelle, his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, his mother-in-law, his sister and brother-in-law from Hawaii, plus assorted friends and other family members. That's in addition to hundreds, if not thousands, of Obama workers that the campaign intends to dispatch.

"Basically, starting on the 26th, it's all Iowa all the time," Obama said in an interview.

Even at this late stage, while his top aides are working to win over potential supporters one by one, Obama is visiting far-flung counties where Democratic caucusgoers are harder to find. The slightest edge could make all the difference in the tight finish that all the campaigns are predicting between Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.). On a five-day tour that ended Tuesday, Obama stopped in several western rural counties for the first time. He hopes to break more new ground when he returns for a swing through eastern Iowa this weekend.

Obama's campaign is hardly the only one that has turned the universe of Iowa Democrats into one massive spreadsheet. All six Democratic candidates actively campaigning in Iowa, including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who are lagging behind the three front-runners, are running textbook campaigns. "They all have better organizations than anyone in 2004," said Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and an Obama supporter.

"There is so much sophistication, so much staff, all those field offices," Fischer said. "Certainly the top three are out-organizing the others, but there is simply no comparison" to the level of organization in past caucuses.

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