Strategy Was Based On Winning Delegates, Not Battlegrounds

By Jonathan Weisman, Shailagh Murray and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Almost from the beginning, Hillary Rodham Clinton's superior name recognition and her sway with state party organizations convinced Barack Obama's brain trust that a junior senator from Illinois was not going to be able to challenge the Clinton political machine head-on.

The insurgent strategy the group devised instead was to virtually cede the most important battlegrounds of the Democratic nomination fight to Clinton, using precision targeting to minimize her delegate hauls, while going all out to crush her in states where Democratic candidates rarely ventured.

The result may have lacked the glamour of a sweep, but last night, with the delegates he picked up in Montana and South Dakota and a flood of superdelegate endorsements, Obama sealed one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history and became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to wrest his party's nomination from the candidate of the party establishment. The surprise was how well his strategy held up -- and how little resistance it met.

"We kept waiting for the Clinton people to send people into the caucus states," marveled Jon Carson, one of Obama's top ground-game strategists.

"It's the big mystery of the campaign," said campaign manager David Plouffe, "because every delegate counts."

The Obama strategy had its limits. Like a basketball team entering halftime with a 30-point lead, the campaign played a less-than-inspired second half. Obama managed only a split yesterday, losing South Dakota and winning Montana, meaning that he lost nine of the last 14 primaries. Before last night, that erratic finish translated into losing 458 of the 867 pledged delegates available since Wisconsin voted on Feb. 19, and 53.2 percent of the popular vote.

His inability to capture battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania may be a portent of what could await him in November against Sen. John McCain. But victory did come -- not in a rush of momentum but in what his own staff calls a "slog."

"Here's a person who nobody had heard of. The nomination was Hillary Clinton's. She was being coronated 16 months ago," said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer, who helped turn Indiana into a narrow defeat that worked to Obama's favor. "He's gone through a long, gut-wrenching, difficult process and emerged as a very talented, tough candidate."

When Obama began his campaign in early 2007, the road ahead was a fairly conventional one, not unlike the one followed by Gary Hart or Bill Bradley before him: Battle for the first three or four states and momentum steamrolls the opponent.

"We had to disrupt her early," Plouffe said of Clinton.

Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 loomed like a mountain. Obama's campaign had budgeted a mere $5 million for that day, and the Democrats had 22 states at stake, including prohibitively expensive prizes such as California and New York.

But by last summer, after Obama's wildly successful book tour led to an even more wildly successful fundraising blitz, members of his inner circle began thinking differently. They began building a new strategy based on message, money and, above all, organization.

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