After One of Campaign's Roughest Patches, Obama Tried to Change the Narrative

Sen. Barack Obama won North Carolina's presidential primary by a wide margin Tuesday, while Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly won in Indiana.
By Jonathan Weisman, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Two days after his damaging defeat in Pennsylvania last month, Barack Obama gathered his wife and senior campaign staff around the dining room table of his Chicago home.

For two hours after dinner, Barack and Michelle Obama, campaign manager David Plouffe, message man David Axelrod, deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, communications chiefs Robert Gibbs and Dan Pfeiffer, family friend and Chicago business heavyweight Valerie Jarrett, and scheduling chief Alyssa Mastromonaco hashed over the presidential campaign's history, looked at the upcoming primaries and decided how the candidate would approach the coming two weeks. Obama wanted to get away from the sniping, including his own, and get back to the approachable, hopeful campaign of last winter's long sojourn in Iowa.

"It wasn't like 'Let's have a discussion.' It was 'One, two, three, four, here's what we're going to do,' " a staffer said. "When things don't go well, he doesn't yell and scream. He's very prescriptive. Everybody understands this isn't about having a discussion. He's got 99 percent of the voting shares. There's no point in taking a vote."

Implored by some Democratic strategists to go more negative, to blow away Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, in North Carolina and finish her off in Indiana, Obama instead went "more intimate, less iconic," as one aide put it. There would be picnics, small gatherings, games of P-I-G in the back yards of basketball-crazy Indiana, his wife and two daughters in tow at times, a riff at the ready about his decision from the start to avoid the negative tit-for-tat campaigns of presidential elections past.

Obama won North Carolina by a comfortable margin and enough for the campaign to crow that he is mathematically on his way to the nomination, and he was running a close race in Indiana, a state his team once considered his for the taking. At stake was his last chance to fundamentally change the story line of the Democratic race with two decisive victories that could force Clinton from the race.

By engaging Clinton in a heated debate about a summer suspension of the gasoline tax, Obama was able to shift the campaign discourse away from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and use a real-world argument to underscore his contention that he would not embrace expedient, ineffective solutions to the nation's problems for cheap political effect. Key endorsements and a steady trickle of superdelegate support over the past week kept up some feeling of momentum for the campaign.

"Despite what has been probably the toughest stretch of this entire campaign, with the bitter comments, with the reemergence of Reverend Wright, with the loss in Pennsylvania, the reality is Barack Obama is essentially in the same position that he was in before all that happened," Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said last night. "Obama has been through a very difficult several weeks, and he has lost a net one delegate. And that's not even counting the results of tonight."

But the schedule will not get any easier: West Virginia and Kentucky primaries over the next two Tuesdays that have the makings of Clinton blowouts; an Oregon contest whose results will be delayed as mail-in ballots are tallied, diminishing the positive effect for Obama; and finales in Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana next month that could push him over the top, but with hardly a resounding ratification.

"There is a danger zone here," fretted one Obama adviser on Capitol Hill.

In truth, no war plan survives contact with the enemy, and within 24 hours of that dining-room conference, Wright was on national television, his sudden return in a flurry of appearances a land mine that would explode with devastating force at the National Press Club on April 28. Obama's luxury campaign bus had just pulled out of Wilson, N.C., and was heading to Chapel Hill for one of his patented mega-rallies when the call came in on the candidate's cellphone. Ashen-faced and visibly shaken, the senator from Illinois begged apologies to Rep. G.K. Butterfield (N.C.) and retreated to the back of the bus.

Wright had gone "haywire," Axelrod was telling him. At the press club that morning, with television cameras rolling, Obama's former pastor had reprised it all: the dark hints that the government had created the AIDS virus, the warm statements of support for Nation of Islam firebrand Louis Farrakhan, the biblical prophecy "as ye sow, so shall ye reap" to explain the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I could feel the anxiety come on," Butterfield recalled, as the jovial mood of the afternoon slipped away.

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