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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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The seamlessness of the operation bore a stark contrast to the constant bickering and shake-ups within the Clinton organization, a far more typical model for presidential campaigns.

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"Oftentimes, presidential campaigns are organizations of ill-fitting pieces jammed together by competing power centers," says Mr. Claypool. "That results in rivalries, turf wars, backbiting, intrigue, and drama – all the things missing from this campaign."

Axelrod, Claypool and others say, is a collegial manager who values – and actively seeks out – others' opinions. He's constantly obsessing over whether he got something right and he seeks out countering viewpoints – a trait many say he shares with Obama. The two have meshed well together in other ways as well, including the premium both place on language and the power of words.

Referred to by many in the campaign as "keeper of the message," Axelrod has a knack for honing the phrases and ideas that will resonate with everyday voters – and for anticipating and dealing with attacks.

"He's got what musicians would call perfect pitch," says Mr. Rose. "That's something you can develop, but a great deal of it is inherent."

Emanuel, a close friend who had Axelrod sign the ketubah (the Jewish marriage covenant) at his wedding, remembers his first run for his north Chicago congressional district, when he was criticized as being a wealthy outsider.

Axelrod created an ad with a Chicago policeman endorsing him – revealed at the end of the commercial to be Emanuel's uncle. "One-third of the Chicago police department lives in my district. It grounded me here," says Emanuel.

When Axelrod ran Mayor Daley's first campaign, he anticipated the criticisms that the sometimes awkward Daley wasn't up to the job. He ran an unconventional ad in which Daley told his audience that he might not be the best speaker, but he knew how to lead a city.

"It took away in one fell swoop the most likely line of attack," says Wilhelm.

With Obama's campaign, Axelrod has dealt with several crises – most notably regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and he's now gearing up for an even more brutal fight in the general election.

As a bigger operation, the campaign has had to hire many more people and delegate more decisions, and some worry whether that same collegial dynamic can be maintained. "The circle is expanding, more people are involved, and it becomes an even bigger management challenge," says Mr. Kupper. "But I think we've tried to put a premium on bringing aboard people who we like and respect."

The campaign has already signaled a few unconventional strategies since clinching the nomination, from the decision to campaign seriously in as many as 25 states to the announcement that Obama will give his acceptance speech in Denver's Invesco Field, which can seat more than 70,000 people – a move reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, the last candidate to accept the nomination in a stadium.

It remains to be seen whether the message Obama and Axelrod crafted together will hold up through November, or resonate as well with general election voters as it did in the primary. But observers say the campaign, so far, will go down in history books as a premier example of how an underdog can take on the establishment.

"This was truly a marathon, not a sprint, and I don't think Barack Obama ever really lost a sense of what he was trying to accomplish," says Wilhelm. "I look at Axelrod and the team, and the fact that they were able to persevere and win in the face of the extraordinary challenge represented by Senator Clinton and the national campaign organization that she put on the field as being one of the seminal achievements of modern-day politics."