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Helping hone Obama's pitch

EMMETSBURG, Iowa - As Barack Obama spoke in the Iowa Lakes Community College gymnasium, a tall, rumpled man (whose own mother once was quoted saying he looked like an unmade bed) patrolled the fringes of the crowd, pecking away on a BlackBerry.

David Axelrod , on the campaign of Barack Obama: "We're ona good path."
David Axelrod , on the campaign of Barack Obama: "We're ona good path."Read moreTOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff

EMMETSBURG, Iowa - As Barack Obama spoke in the Iowa Lakes Community College gymnasium, a tall, rumpled man (whose own mother once was quoted saying he looked like an unmade bed) patrolled the fringes of the crowd, pecking away on a BlackBerry.

He sidled up to aides to tweak the next stop on the day's bus tour of rural towns and paused to spin reporters half-listening to Obama's stump speech.

Meet David Axelrod, the multitasking and restless Democratic strategist running Obama's campaign. Obama is locked in a statistical tie with Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards for the lead in Thursday's Iowa caucuses, the first test in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Obama, a charismatic first-term senator from Illinois, was stagnating for months in the polls. But he has surged in recent weeks on a message of change, sharpened in part by Axelrod.

"Well, we've got their attention - we're on a good path," Axelrod, 52, said.

A former political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod is this campaign's hot consultant, with a chance to become his profession's next superstar, much as Karl Rove was for George W. Bush and James Carville was for Bill Clinton.

Such comparisons are naturally flattering, but "Axe," as he is known, laughs them off. "I'm a 'genius' now," he said, "but I was an idiot two months ago" when Obama trailed Clinton by a mile.

Behind him, Obama was telling the Emmetsburg audience that the voices of the American people are "drowned out" by corporate interests in Washington. It was sharper than the sunny politics-of-hope, bring-everyone-together rhetoric with which he began his campaign last February. His new tack is designed to blunt Edwards, whose populist message has burned even hotter, and to reinforce his main critique of Clinton, that she is captive of a broken political system and unable to create change.

The campaign had gotten nastier just before the bus tour across northern Iowa. Former President Bill Clinton said that electing the lightly experienced Obama would be "a roll of the dice" in a dangerous world. A Hillary Clinton surrogate had to step down after publicly making an issue of Obama's youthful experimentation with cocaine and marijuana, detailed in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father.

Axelrod's spin? The Clinton campaign was "doing us a favor" by reminding people what they didn't like about the attack politics of the 1990s.

In Philadelphia in 1999, Axelrod was in the opposite strategic corner. He was the media consultant for then-City Council President John F. Street, considered a polarizing figure, facing a well-financed candidate, Republican Sam Katz, with a change message.

Axelrod struggled to make Street's personality irrelevant, selling his experience and ties to outgoing Mayor Ed Rendell.

"Where's Sam Katz been these last 19 years, while John F. Street was cutting the budget 15 percent, saving Philadelphia from fiscal collapse," went the voice-over on one 1999 ad. The camera zoomed in on an empty chair behind the nameplate "Sam Katz." The final line: "If experience, commitment and leadership count, John F. Street, Democrat for mayor."

In Street's reelection race in 2003, Axelrod was at the helm when the campaign was rocked by the discovery of an FBI bug in Street's office, part of a corruption investigation.

Axelrod's dominant narrative in the 2003 race was that it was important to keep the city in Democratic hands, regardless of what one thought of Street personally. The campaign helped fan suspicions that Street was unfairly targeted by a GOP White House.

"In 1999, he didn't understand or figure out that he needed to make the race between a Republican and a Democrat, not Street vs. Katz," said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia Democratic media consultant who crossed over to handle Katz that year.

"Four years later, he didn't make the same mistake," Oxman said. "He made it from the beginning about Democrat vs. Republican."

When the corruption scandal hit, a month from the election in 2003, Axelrod's soft-spoken style helped Street's team withstand the maelstrom, veterans of the campaign recalled.

"He's a calming presence," said local Democratic consultant Dan Fee, who was communications director. "The Street campaign could have blown apart when the bug was found, and David just kept everybody focused on the game plan."

Axelrod was 29 in 1984 when he jumped from the Tribune to become spokesman for the Senate campaign of Paul Simon. He wound up managing that campaign after a staff shake-up, and his career as a media consultant was launched. Axelrod built his practice as an expert in mayoral races.

"He really became a student of urban politics, and knows it better than anyone else," said Ken Snyder, a Philadelphia political consultant who is an Axelrod protege. Snyder, a Chicago native, was imported by Axelrod to manage communications for Street's 1999 campaign.

Since 2002, Axelrod's firm has represented candidates in 42 campaigns and won 33 of them, or about 79 percent. One notable failure: this year's primary defeat of Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) for mayor of Philadelphia.

Critics in the consulting business - many of whom genuinely like Axelrod and others who don't want to anger someone who may win the White House with a client - say that Axelrod bulks up on easy races and is a shameless self-promoter with his "aw-shucks" shtick.

Friends say that at heart Axelrod is a believer, the same guy who was thrilled to witness a John F. Kennedy rally in 1960 as a 5-year-old perched on a mailbox in his native New York.

The consultant's ambition and idealism seem to have come together in Obama, whom Axelrod has known for 15 years, since the senator was a community organizer in Chicago. Seeing the kid's potential, Axelrod took on Obama's 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate, helping the then-obscure state legislator rise with a message that it was time for post-ideological problem solving.

Since Obama won, Axelrod has had camera crews following his client nearly everywhere, from town meetings in downstate Illinois to Kenya to visit his father's homeland. Axelrod has said that helping elect the first African American president would be something to take pride in for the rest of his life.

"He's emotionally invested in campaigns," Snyder said. "He goes all the way in, which is why he always seems so exhausted and disheveled."