In the nearly three weeks since Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made his unofficial debut as a presidential candidate, his senior advisers have been holed up in a temporary office on Connecticut Avenue NW, feverishly working to translate the huge excitement about his candidacy into a political strategy.
For all the buzz about his running, Obama did not enter the race with the conventional weapons of a presidential candidate -- a deep database of donors, a tactical road map for winning primaries or even a sign marking the entrance to his ad hoc campaign headquarters. Obama is only now starting to build a political infrastructure that matches his growing support.
But the challenge for Obama is not just assembling the nuts and bolts of a national campaign on the fly. He must, his advisers believe, do so in a way that reflects the distinct, next-generation message of his candidacy, or at least avoids making him look like every other politician in the race. "I would sooner lose the race than lose having him the way he is," said David Axelrod, his chief media strategist.
While acknowledging that there are "certain immutable realities of the process," Axelrod insisted that "the kind of things we do over time will be emblematic of the campaign that we're running. And if we are doing it right, they won't be identical to everyone else's."
That vague mission -- not unlike the one that faced both Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as relative outsiders who came late to the 2004 presidential race -- is in the hands of a growing group of respected, if not exactly unconventional, operatives who have had to spend an inordinate amount of time in the past few weeks simply mastering logistics. Led by David Plouffe, the campaign manager, the team spent the day of Obama's exploratory-committee announcement answering phones and taking down volunteers' phone numbers.
‘The audacity of hope’
Now the advisers are beginning to implement a broader strategy. In contrast to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who spent the first two weeks of her official candidacy trying to project strength and inevitability, Obama will seek a more pared-down image that focuses on the substance of his message ("the audacity of hope," as his book title put it) rather than on proving his ability to win a general election.
Obama gave a glimpse of how his campaign will look and feel on Friday, when he delivered somber remarks at the Democratic National Committee meeting that left the audience hushed at points. No one passed out "Obama" posters; the candidate took the stage without any music, unlike some other Democratic contenders who bounded to the dais to the blaring sounds of rock-and-roll oldies.
"There are those who don't believe in talking about hope," Obama told the crowd. "They say, 'Well, we want specifics, we want details, and we want white papers, and we want plans.' We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you."
From Washington, Obama headed to Fairfax for an event that his advisers said illustrated his campaign strategy even more directly: a student rally organized through the online networking site Facebook.com. Thousands of students attended the Web-driven event at George Mason University -- evidence, the Obama campaign said, that the popularity of its candidate will spread virally through the electorate rather than as a result of paid television ads or campaign mailings.
"Our campaign will never be the most rigid, structured, top-down, corporate-type campaign in this nomination battle," said senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs. "There are plenty of other people that can do 'politics as usual' far better than we can. But I hope we have a campaign whose support continues to expand even faster than you can put a fence around it."
Matt Bennett, a senior adviser to the Clark campaign in 2004, described the phenomenon as trying to "ride a tiger."
"It's the toughest thing to do in presidential politics, which is to walk the line between maintaining your genuine attractiveness to the grass roots and becoming a credible national candidate, because often those things are in direct conflict," he said. "He is the candidate that is exciting this huge mass of people, and he cannot let them down in a fundamental way. But he has also got to do the blocking and tackling that candidates do."
To that end, the Obama campaign spent the weekend moving its headquarters to Chicago (far away, they note, from the sprawling Clinton offices on K Street) and organizing Obama's official campaign debut this Saturday in Springfield, Ill.
And they are already bumping up against the realities of riding his booming grass-roots support while obeying the conventions of running for president. Logistical concerns, such as how much time to spend campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, are at odds with the imperative for him to prove his seriousness in the Senate.
The task of raising millions of dollars to survive the primaries is competing with Obama's core image as a fresh face -- a familiar dilemma for a professed outsider, but one that his advisers and rivals alike believe he can overcome.
Perhaps most important, Obama's strategists are scrambling to manage expectations. "Given the need to build a fundraising infrastructure and the fact that we do not accept contributions from federal lobbyists and political action committees, raising $8 to $10 million in the first quarter would be great news," spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said.
"An Obama campaign clearly has tremendous fundraising potential in the long term," Pfeiffer said. "But it is absurd to assume that we should raise as much or more than others who have been building fundraising networks for years and years."
Rivals in the Democratic contest contend that he could raise as much as $40 million, potentially raking in $1 million in a single Hollywood fundraiser, and will all but fail an early test of his viability if he comes up with less than former North Carolina senator John Edwards before April. Edwards is expected to raise as much as $15 million in the first quarter, and Clinton is expected to raise as much as $30 million, though both of those campaigns, like Obama's, insist they could take in less.
"By all accounts, Obama is poised for a huge fundraising quarter," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, predicting that Obama will raise $25 million or more. Wolfson played down the notion that Obama's campaign needs time to get up to speed. "You can build an operation fairly quickly if you know what you're doing, and I suspect they know what they're doing," he said.
Still, Clinton spent more than $30 million during the 2006 election cycle, much of it on building an infrastructure, including a donor database, that could be used in her presidential bid. That puts a gulf between her and her rivals, including Obama. "Nobody has ever come to the table with the built-in advantages that Hillary Clinton has," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist advising Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) in the race. "She has had decades to build this organization, and clearly has been running for president more or less for six years, on top of everything else that was previously built for her husband."
Obama "started later than other people, and that's going to show for a while," Jordan said. "But ultimately that's not what's going to decide whether he wins."
Instead, he and others said, Obama will rise or fall on his ability to continue coming across as the candidate who is different, new and charismatic.
"If he tries to run a traditional campaign -- that is run, staffed, managed and operated in a traditional way -- he is playing to his opponents' strengths, both in terms of going head-to-head where they're going to be really strong, but also in terms of undermining a good chunk of his message," said Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for Al Gore who is not currently on the payroll of any presidential campaign.
It remains to be seen how the kind of nontraditional campaign Lehane envisions would work in a round-the-clock news environment. Would Obama decline to respond to attacks? Or to skewer his rivals? Or to answer activists' questionnaires? Or to give detailed answers about his views on policy? Or to play pop music and blast red-white-and-blue confetti at his events?
For now, the answer is yes.
"I think he is very focused on the fact that he doesn't want to lose his essential self in this process, and if he does -- and if what he projects and delivers is just more of the kind of politics people have become accustomed to -- it would be a disappointment to him, and to them," Axelrod said.
"It's not just how he delivers the message but how we deliver the message, and what kind of relationship we develop with our supporters," he said. "If this campaign is what it should be, this is not going to be the hoisting of an icon. It's going to be the movement of millions of people."