Closing the gap built confidence among party regulars that Schmidt was up to the task of running a national campaign. And it suggested to the Republican base that McCain could conceivably win. On the eve of the Democratic convention, Castellanos told me, “I think right now it’s pretty clear that the race is McCain’s to lose—which, under the circumstances in the country, is pretty amazing.”
Other Republicans, however, were a good deal less sanguine. “If it’s 45-45, we are losing; we are the incumbent party,” says a longtime Republican consultant. “McCain is already harvesting a disproportionate share of voters who say the country is on the wrong track. And yet he’s still never consistently been above 45 percent. The McCain guys haven’t succeeded in articulating an overarching positive theme. Schmidt is good at winning the next twelve hours but not at building up a brand. They’ve spent the same amount of money as, or even more than, Obama—and now, with McCain taking public money, they’re about to be outspent three to one. That explains why the Obama people aren’t panicking. And why they shouldn’t be.”
Panic is not David Axelrod’s style, though he confesses to always being a bit twitchy, as a matter of professional duty. “I get paid to be nervous,” he says.
Axelrod is 53, lives in Chicago, and has been advising candidates since 1984, when he abandoned political journalism in favor of political consulting. His clients have included both Clintons (for his presidential reelection in 1996 and her Senate run in 2000), John Edwards in 2004, and Richard Daley, along with countless local black candidates across the country. In the trade, Axelrod is known for being averse to issues and policy, for preferring to focus on softer qualities of character, biography. “His brilliance is his ability to communicate emotionally with voters about his candidates, to bring out what makes them personally compelling and drive a larger narrative based on that,” says Hillary Clinton’s former communications czar, Howard Wolfson. “But he also has the ability and willingness to twist the knife when it’s appropriate.”
When David Axelrod first heard that Sarah Palin was to be McCain’s V.P., his reaction was “astonishment. He’s completely subverted his own argument that the most important thing you need to be president is vast foreign-policy and national-security experience.”
Twisting the knife without looking nasty was central to Obama’s success against Clinton in the Democratic-nomination fight. “The positioning of their whole campaign was negative, an implicit critique of her character,” Wolfson says. “David had seen the focus-group data from his work with us in 2000. He knew where her soft spots were, where the underbelly was: the doubts among voters about her as ambitious, calculating, triangulating. And he figured out early on how to juxtapose that perfectly against the brand they were building for Obama, how to attack her without even mentioning her name.”
But after slaying the Clinton dragon, Axelrod and his team seemed to fall prey either to exhaustion or complacency. As summer wore on and McCain gained ground, waves of concern, then nervousness, then agitation began bubbling up among party insiders. “Their anti-McCain messaging is nowhere,” a Democratic player complained in mid-August. “People say that they’re not being tough enough, but toughness isn’t the issue. Presidential campaigns are all about storytelling: You tell a story about yourself and a story about your opponent. But they’re not telling a story about McCain—and there’s a hell of a story to tell.” At the same time, Axelrod and his team appeared to underestimate the salience of the story the McCainiacs were spinning about Obama. In the face of the Republican nominee’s outrageous claim, while Obama was in the Middle East, that the Democrat “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” Obama’s response was startlingly wan: He was “disappointed” in McCain. And the ads taunting Obama as a political Paris Hilton and as The One elicited little more than scoffing dismissal from the folks out in Chicago.
Axelrod insists McCain’s August assault was predictable and predicted. “I told Obama when we went overseas that the trip would be of long-term value but would create short-term problems for us politically—and they did,” he says. “The other guys exploited the situation pretty effectively. They had a good couple of weeks. I thought they were pretty clever. But did I start saying this is slipping away? No.”
Axelrod’s sense of confidence was informed by his experience in 2007. For much of that year, Obama lagged Clinton by double-digit margins in the national polls. The campaign’s donors became restive, began insisting that the hopemonger had to kneecap the queen—and the press chimed in with similar shopworn advice. But Axelrod and Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, kept their eyes on the prize: the Iowa caucuses. They had a plan and intended to stick to it come hell or high water. The plan was centered on an audacious turnout operation in the Hawkeye State, and also on Obama’s delivering a roof-raising, galvanizing speech at the Iowa Jefferson Jackson dinner in November, the traditional kickoff of the home stretch before the caucuses.