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David Axelrod: architect of Obama's unlikely campaign

Barack Obama's chief strategist grew up loving the political fight while holding to the ideals in the message.

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And over the years he's mounted an impressive roster of clients – including Representative Emanuel, Sen. Herb Kohl, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

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He has a close relationship with longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a client for 20 years, and he's done campaign work for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Sen. Chris Dodd – all vying for the nomination this year. But apparently Axelrod never has believed in a client as much as he does in Obama. "It's one of those things, where you pray for the day when you meet the right candidate and you meet at the right moment, and David Axelrod has done both of those," says Mr. Wilhelm.

Both men are from Chicago, and Axelrod first met Obama 15 years ago when Obama was a 30-year-old community organizer. Their friendship was solidified during Obama's 2004 run for the US Senate. Axelrod ran his campaign despite the fact that Obama was a little-known state senator who seemed to have little chance of beating his well-funded opponents.

Axelrod has a talent for mining his clients' biographies for details that will resonate with voters, and in Obama, he has found a uniquely American story to work with.

"David understands that the candidate himself – the candidate's values, the candidate's story – are what drives the message of the campaign," says Forrest Claypool, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and Axelrod's partner when he first began a political consulting business. "One of his strengths is to tie the individual story of candidates to the message and values that they're conveying on the campaign trail."

Axelrod doesn't shy away from negative campaigning, and colleagues point to some brutal ones he has run in the past. But in Obama, he sensed that the message that would resonate – and that was most natural to his client – was one that focused on ideals, hope, unity, and change.

Indeed, since Obama announced his candidacy on a frigid Saturday in February of last year – telling the crowd of an "unyielding faith that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it" – that core message has remained largely unchanged. Axelrod "had the initial vision of how this campaign might succeed," says John Kupper, a partner at Axelrod's firm.

"To make this decision to run is a huge personal sacrifice and commitment. Barack didn't want to be out chasing rainbows here," he says. "I think David is the guy who felt that Barack had a winning message and saw the path and put together a team that could help execute that plan."

Still, the success of that message was tested over the months, as Obama continued to trail in the polls and many pushed the campaign to increase attacks on Clinton or to shake up the campaign.

Both observers and those inside the campaign give much of the credit for resisting that pressure not just to Axelrod, but to the team that he and Obama built up.

Many of them had worked together for years, and they were selected in part for their ability to work as a team – starting with David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. Many credit Mr. Plouffe, who is a partner in Axelrod's firm and a longtime friend, with the ultimately successful decision to eschew traditional wisdom and focus on rural and caucus states.