The Conventional Wisdom Defied

Barack Obama addresses his supporters after the Iowa caucus results filter in. Video by APEditor: Megan Driscoll/
By Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 4, 2008

During the hot Chicago summer, with polling data showing his campaign lagging and the national media fixated on an "inevitable nominee," advisers to Barack Obama divided into warring factions.

Angry that their candidate was nearly 30 points behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in national polls, some supporters worried that fundraising would soon dry up. Some wanted a confrontational strategy drawing sharp contrasts with the front-runner. Still others wanted the candidate to rest up for the final months of battle.

But Obama and his inner circle decided to stay focused on their original battle plan: lay the groundwork in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and push an aggressive message for change but one of unity and not harsh rhetorical attacks, according to interviews with advisers, fundraisers and supporters.

"The natural reminder here is O.J. [Simpson] -- how does an African American candidate attack a white woman?" said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), a fellow Chicagoan whose father ran for president twice in the 1980s but was never as close as Obama is now to securing the Democratic nomination.

With a win in the Iowa caucuses last night, Obama shook conventional wisdom to its political core, preaching "post-partisan" comity and becoming the first African American candidate in either party to win the first-in-the-nation balloting. Obama went into a state of 3 million people, just 2 1/2 percent of whom are black, and cleaned up, topping Clinton and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards by more than eight percentage points.

"A young, 46-year-old black man, with a black family, before an all-white crowd, hailing his victory -- that's a remarkable image," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and an Obama supporter.

To be sure, Clinton has the organizational and financial strength to come back and beat Obama. "They've got money. They will run a national campaign," said Cassandra Butts, a law school friend of Obama's and a campaign strategist. "This is obviously sweet, but no way are we out of the woods."

Beating what many considered the Clinton machine was never assumed in the Obama camp. How, they asked, were they to promote a black candidate with little political experience against the most recognizable female politician?

During "somewhat contentious" talks in the summer, some Obama advisers argued that they should start to draw sharper contrasts with Clinton, according to Jackson, who was in the camp advising that such a strategy could cause a backlash in Iowa.

Instead, Obama ignored the national polls while his campaign built an infrastructure of staffers and foot soldiers inside Iowa that outnumbered the opposition. Obama did take some jabs at Clinton, over foreign policy and her perceived waffling on such issues as Iran, Social Security, and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. But the Obama camp avoided outright attacks over the airwaves, like those that dominated the closing weeks of the Republican campaign.

For the cadre of young, talented African Americans who have stayed close to Obama since Harvard Law School, the senator's success is not all that surprising. They say they always believed he would be propelled to great heights. But even as they watched him become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, even as they raised money for his political runs in Illinois, they did not imagine him on a presidential stage.

Charisse Carney-Nunes, a Washington area writer and former co-president of Harvard's Black Law Students Association, remembered Obama addressing the group in 1990, speaking without notes but capturing the same sense of hope that won over Iowa. "You just knew . . . he was someone that was so very special," she said.

But in November 2006, when the freshman senator convened his closest confidants to plot out a White House run, they saw in Clinton the most formidable Democratic political machine in memory. Against that, Obama would be building a network from scratch.

His speech in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston had propelled Obama to the national political stage. But Nicole Y. Lamb-Hale, another law-school contemporary, remembered trying to maintain the blistering fundraising pace last summer in the face of what seemed like a Clinton juggernaut.

Lamb-Hale, now a lawyer in Detroit, begged potential donors not to look at national polls, which seemed to show Clinton with an impregnable lead. The polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were much closer, she said, over and over again. "Summer was not a pretty time," she said. "There were a lot of doubters."

But in the dog days of summer, supporters now say, the key decisions were set in place to win yesterday's race. "There was a lull six months ago. Some of us were even arguing that Barack should take a break," Jackson recalled last night. "But Barack clearly understood you cannot take the low road to high office. Barack had to walk a very fine line."

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