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For Obama's 2012 campaign, aides debate a Chicago headquarters

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 5:48 PM

When President Obama kicks off his reelection campaign sometime in the next few months, senior advisers say, it is virtually certain that his headquarters will be located in Chicago.

But should it be?

Full of nostalgia for the 2008 campaign and keenly aware of the anti-Washington vibe in the electorate, advocates say the arrangement would give the president's team a chance to get away from inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom and to recapture the grass-roots energy that helped Obama beat two candidates entrenched in the capital's culture two years ago.

Yet no president or vice president in recent history has won reelection with his headquarters so far from the White House. The arrangement would splinter the president's staff, sending some of his most trusted advisers to another time zone, and would risk creating a competing power center in Illinois. Because it would limit their casual contact, the distance could also force the White House and campaign staff members to adhere more rigidly to requirements that their work be kept separate. Not to mention that the campaign staff would rarely, if ever, see the candidate.

White House officials say that no decision has been made and that when it is, it will be Obama's alone. "I think there's only one person that gets a vote," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Aides said setting up shop in Chicago again has some powerful advocates, including senior adviser David Axelrod, who is planning to move back home early next year; deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who is expected to be named campaign manager; and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, another longtime Chicago resident.

The idea has its detractors, however, and some have quietly registered their objections to the political staff in recent months. One aide described the Chicago plan as "crazy," saying it would disrupt an already beleaguered team and add financial burdens - in the form of plane tickets and office and apartment rent - just so the president can make the disputable claim that he is not tethered to Washington.

People on both sides of the issue spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying the decision is the president's and noting that he has not yet officially launched his 2012 reelection effort.

A test for staffers

White House allies said Obama's political advisers see returning to Chicago as a kind of test for prospective staff members: People who are too attached to their lives in Washington to move should not consider themselves welcome. During the 2008 campaign, they were often critical of the campaign of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who put her headquarters in Ballston and wound up with what one Obama aide at the time described as a "team of mercenaries." And as disruptive as requiring aides to move to Chicago could be to their personal happiness, supporters also see it as a way to foster a tight-knit culture that shuts out distractions.

"They want people who are going to move and do the campaign and be devoted to it. They don't want people who are going to be hanging around with political reporters at bars after work," said a Democratic strategist who works closely with the Obama team.

At the same time, the strategist said: "They tend to like to zag when other people zig. They like to confound conventional wisdom, and doing it out there is confounding."

Successful campaigns have been waged outside Washington for decades, but almost always by challengers, from their home towns. President Ronald Reagan ran his reelection from Washington, as did his successor, George H.W. Bush. President Bill Clinton started out in Little Rock in 1992 but shifted his campaign to Washington in 1996 when running for his second term. President George W. Bush followed the same pattern, running from Austin in 2000, then from the White House in 2004, with a campaign office across the river in Northern Virginia.

"The attraction is always to do it outside the Beltway," said Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, an adviser to Bush. "There was a similar pull in '04 for the Bush campaign to be in Austin or Dallas, but at the end of the day, it just makes more sense to be in D.C. Bush ended up in Arlington, and it's just easier to have it in D.C. - although I guess Axelrod wants to move home to Chicago."

Gore's Nashville move

Though he was ultimately defeated, Vice President Al Gore was among the few to reverse-engineer a heartland campaign office. After starting his presidential bid with a headquarters on K Street, Gore shook up his campaign team midway through and restarted the effort from Nashville, a decision largely praised for helping him get back on track.

Strategist Michael Feldman, who was Gore's traveling chief of staff at the time, said there are numerous advantages to putting the Obama headquarters in Chicago from the start.

"Their ability to build a real campaign culture - like they did in 2008 - will be significantly enhanced if they move back to Chicago," Feldman said. "The problem with a Washington campaign is that it will inevitably become populated by an oversampling of political professionals. There's nothing wrong with it, but they end up treating it like a job. You want to field a reelection team of people who are willing to pack up, move and devote their lives to the effort. You want to build a team of people who live, eat, breathe and occasionally sleep the campaign."

He added: "What they lose in convenience, they will make up in productivity and energy. So, some people will have to commute. Chicago is not the end of the Earth. There are direct flights."


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