CHICAGO—The field-operations office for Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign is cramped into a small corner room overlooking downtown Chicago and the river that is dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. The walls are papered in maps and yellow strips of oversized legal pads, one of which listed more than 20 states.
“All these states are thinking of moving up early,” said Temo Figueroa, the campaign’s national field director, as he pointed to the list. “We got a plan for it.”
It had better be a good one. The last two “It” candidates, John McCain in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004, both slammed into the limits of unbridled ebullience when they foundered against better-established candidates. And that is just what Mr. Obama faces now as he runs his Chicago-based campaign against his more experienced and better-funded colleague from New York. But the Obama campaign, if nothing else, is well aware of its structural shortcomings. Indeed, his staff consciously seeks to embrace them, uniformly assuming the posture of Chicago underdogs, eager to prove that they can take on Hillary Clinton and all the heavyweights of her adopted city.
“As Barack says, Chicago politics is a contact sport, and he understands how to play that,” said Robert Gibbs, the campaign’s communications director, who recently mixed it up with his Clinton counterpart, Howard Wolfson, in a very public spat. “It’s incumbent on us to demonstrate an ability to tangle.”
Mr. Gibbs argued that Mr. Obama would deliver the specific energy, education and health-care policies in due time, and said that the campaign was built on more than just “hype and hope.”
He was speaking in a coffee shop on North Michigan Avenue, in one of those hulking Chicago buildings that seem to stretch across entire city blocks. Upstairs, on the 17th floor, the Obama campaign headquarters sat with a view to the west of the Art Deco Carbon and Carbide Building, and of thawing Lake Michigan to the east. A sign reading “Welcome to the Jungle” hung on the door of the campaign’s press shop, located outside the campaign’s main offices and opposite the locked bathrooms. (Complaints about the missing “Obama ’08” laminated restroom keys have already become a comic refrain.)
On Thursday afternoon, ringing phones competed with the clicking of two dozen laptop keyboards as press officers and researchers worked to respond to a front-page story in that morning’s Los Angeles Times asserting that, contrary to his official biography, Mr. Obama had been a practicing Muslim during the brief part of his childhood when he lived in Indonesia. As is standard practice in such situations, press officers had taped a computer printout of that story, along with the front pages of about a dozen other major national papers, to a green wall behind a muted television tuned to CNN.
By late in the afternoon, the campaign had provided a rebuttal to the story, which quoted several former childhood acquaintances of Mr. Obama and reported that his school records had been eaten by insects.
“A lot of the day is beating back inaccuracies,” said Devorah Adler, a tough-talking 32-year-old research director. “If it’s not true, why should we let people say it?”
Ms. Adler sat next to wall-length window, three rows down from Mr. Gibbs. Pale with black-framed glasses, he swiveled his chair to face the city, held his head with one hand and grasped the phone with the other. At the other end of the desk, past junior press officers and researchers, national spokesman Bill Burton drank coffee from three different cups. Even the chief of staff to Mr. Obama’s wife Michelle seemed busy.
By Friday morning, the press office seemed more relaxed. The story had received little pickup. The conversation among the Washington imports turned to their first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago.
The Youth Brigade
The only separate desk in the press office belonged to Jon Favreau, the campaign’s speechwriter. Mr. Favreau, 25, keeps his head shaved and usually wears jeans. He started writing speeches shortly after he graduated from Holy Cross. He wrote for John Kerry in the last election and then interviewed for the Obama job, which he said he got because both he and his boss were writers who preferred a momentum-building narrative to “cheap applause lines.”
In a coffee shop, Mr. Favreau—the candidate calls him “Favs”—talked about conversing with Mr. Obama for hours, often typing every word the Senator says in order to get a feel for his cadences and ideas.
“I got more of a chance to understand his voice—more than I did after,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama usually tells him the main thematic points he wants to make in a speech, then proceeds to gut his work with a pencil or to add his own literary flourishes at the last minute.
“It’s a lot more pressure,” said Mr. Favreau. “He’s Barack Obama. He’s known for his speeches.”
For the Obama experiment to get anywhere close to a primary victory, the candidate must do more than deliver inspirational speeches. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted this month showed that 37 percent of registered Democrats said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton, compared to 22 percent for Mr. Obama, while a new Rasmussen Reports survey shows a narrower lead by Mrs. Clinton of 35 to 30. At the moment, the people charged with finding the means to close that gap are plying their trade in a drab, gray-carpeted horseshoe of an office space behind the counter of the reception desk.
On one side of the room, Jordan Kaplan, the preppy Illinois finance director, sits in a room with deputies surrounded by jars of chocolate-covered candy and tries to squeeze local donors for cash. Next-door, Ami Copeland, the deputy national finance director under Juliana Smoot, helps oversee the campaign’s nine major fund-raising regions. On the office door hangs a green “O’Bama” campaign T-shirt made special for St. Patrick’s Day. (A Post-It stuck on the shirt, which costs $20.08—even for staffers—reads “don’t steal me.”) Down the hall, policy experts without ties conferred with the campaign management in the corner office. Across the hall, Mr. Figueroa, a 42-year-old political-organizing veteran with a goatee and a manic true-believer energy level, works with his other field marshals—Buffy Wicks, a former political director for Wakeup Wal-Mart, and Hans Riemer, the former political director for Rock the Vote—to give some shape and specific purpose to Mr. Obama’s large but still amorphous field army.
“We’re focused like a laser beam on the first four states,” Mr. Figueroa said.
Back toward the reception area, Eureka Gilkey, the campaign’s deputy political director, and Josh DuBois, who runs Mr. Obama’s religious-outreach operation, sit back to back in a stuffy room that smells of scented hand lotion. The entire campaign is going to move within the next few weeks to a larger space on the building’s 11th floor, filled with bullpens, conference rooms, cushioned orange seats and ample electrical outlets. The only campaign workers to have made the move so far are the new-media team, a small group of techies under the leadership of Blue State Digital founder Joe Rospars. The youngest—and no doubt richest—of the group is Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, whose floppy blond hair and breezy manner have made him a dot-com poster boy.
“I wouldn’t have left Facebook for any other candidate—this is a once-in-a-generation-type thing,” said Mr. Hughes, who is all of 23.
He said that the &l
dquo;My.BarackObama.com” section of the campaign Web site constituted “the only social-organizing tool on this scale that has ever been rolled out in any campaign ever.”
Old Man Axelrod
On the other end of the campaign, generationally speaking, is David Axelrod, the veteran 52-year-old media consultant who is acting as Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. Mr. Axelrod has an office on North Franklin Street, a fashionable strip of designer furniture stores, architectural firms and art galleries. Mr. Axelrod, who worked for Senator John Edwards’ 2004 White House bid and Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, proudly displays the front pages of his electoral victories in the main lobby. There is “O-Bama!”, “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington” and even “Capital Hil.” By the office kitchen is a poster autographed by Mr. Obama, which features the candidate sitting pensively under a photo of Muhammad Ali. The message reads: “I couldn’t have won this fight without you!”
“I have never seen a city or state more galvanized around a national candidate,” said Mr. Axelrod, who on Monday night had a tense exchange with Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, over Mr. Penn’s assertion that the two candidates had similarly uncertain positions on Iraq. Mr. Axelrod almost seems to be the campaign’s token feet-on-the-ground realist, not only keeping the idealistic staff grounded in a day-by-day campaign approach, but keeping the young candidate himself from revealing as much of himself as the press might wish.
“This campaign just began, and we have 10 months to go,” he said, in response to a question about when Mr. Obama might finally have to flesh out his pleasant-sounding but sometimes vague policy proposals. “This campaign is not going to be run in the next 30 days. We are not voting in April.”
Another, less public center of gravity for the Obama operation in Chicago is on Goethe Street, just off Lake Michigan in an exclusive Near North Side neighborhood, where Lewis Manilow, one of the city’s major political fund-raisers, lives with his wife Susan in a home exhibiting ancient Egyptian Fayum portraits, Hindu statues and Chinese vases side by side with contemporary paintings.
Mr. Obama’s Chicago supporters have been asked by the campaign to raise 20 percent of the $75 million–plus they say they’re going to need for the primary campaign. Mr. Manilow plans to account for a good chunk of it. As Ms. Manilow (who happens to be the campaign-finance chair for Illinois’ other U.S. Senator, Richard Durbin) worked at a desk beside the kitchen, Mr. Manilow sat in his office, under a portrait by the Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, and explained his support for Mr. Obama.
“He’s really local. Hillary was in Arkansas for 20 years,” said Mr. Manilow, who previously served as Illinois finance chair to Presidents Carter and Clinton. “There are a lot of people with long relationships with Hillary. But my guess is that we will have most of them on board.” Soft-spoken and wearing corduroys and wire-framed glasses, Mr. Manilow said that he and other wealthy Chicagoans had been busy making calls to provide Mr. Obama with the cash necessary to stay competitive. “We don’t think New York is going to roll over us—no way. Lots of people who can write checks live in this town. Chicago people support the Cubs and White Sox, not the New York Yankees.”
Case in point: Michael Bauer, a gay activist and another major Obama fund-raiser, who fairly reveled in the campaign’s second-place status. Leaning back in a chair in his undecorated office in the NBC Tower, Mr. Bauer said that some of the Clinton supporters in Chicago had pressured him to join their ranks, telling him that Mr. Obama had no realistic shot of winning the election.
“I just told them we’re all going to hold hands after the primary,” said Mr. Bauer, adding somewhat mischievously, “Just some are going to have better tickets to the inauguration than others.”
Chicago, Mr. Bauer made a point of saying, would provide the campaign with a unique energy—and something else. “Basically, the only other value Chicago has is in raising money,” said Mr. Bauer. “If we’re not going to stand up for our home guy—who is?”