Thursday, October 30, 2008

Q&A with Axelrod

TIME recently caught up with David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s top strategist, for an interesting interview.

If you win, what would you say was the defining moment for you on the campaign, the moment when you thought Obama could win?

Standing backstage at the convention when he was giving his speech and looking at that crowd and thinking back to the four days we'd had before where I think we clearly defined what this race was about, what he was about; I was feeling good that day. I also think, in a weird way, that Monday, whatever it was, Sept. 15th, when the financial crisis really erupted and Senator McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy were strong, that was a pretty decisive moment in this campaign. I think that kicked off a couple of weeks where you saw a real strong contrast between these two candidates and I think redounded to our efforts culminating in the debates.

This last week has been full of blockbuster speeches — enormous crowds, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, all the fireworks. You're laying it on pretty thick.

It's the last week of the campaign. We want to see and touch and talk to as many people as possible, we want to get up on as many local news markets as possible. We have an urgent message, which is: we need people to vote; we need people to get other people to vote. I mean this is momentum time. Because we're all about galvanizing people at the grassroots.

You're leading in most polls, can John McCain still comeback and win?

I think it would be foolish to the extreme to ever suggest that a campaign is over until it's over. I like where we are positioned. I think I'd much rather be us than him, I've always believed that he's on the wrong side of history... But it's not over until it's over and the worst thing that we can do is to celebrate prematurely or assume too much.

Are you worried about a Bradley effect? (Tom Bradley was a candidate for governor of California who, despite going into Election Day ahead in the polls, lost the race. Most political analysts attributed the loss to racism that voters would not admit to when asked by a pollster, though in recent years just as many analysts have questioned the existence of the phenomenon.)

You know, I don't even know what the reality of the Bradley effect is. It was 26 years ago and I have been around and involved in politics for most of those 26 years and I've worked with many African American candidates...And my experience has been, in the last four years with Obama in Illinois and in the primaries, is that I don't really see the effect. I think the really big story on race isn't the resistance that we're meeting but how little resistance there has been. People have got bigger concerns and we've moved beyond that as a country. So I don't worry about that, what I worry about is mobilizing our voters so that when people come out they understand that in many of these battleground states the race is close. It's not enough to anticipate victory; you have to earn it.

So, are you worried about a repeat of Obama's surprise loss in the New Hampshire primary?

You know, that's exactly the thing and we have to hunker down and redouble our efforts in these last four days.

So, how's the speech writing going for Tuesday night?

As we always do, we've got two drafts going, we're prepared for any exigency. They're not done, we're just starting to think about it now... [The themes will] depend what the outcome is... [but] this has been a great journey and so much has been accomplished in this campaign. We're going to have positive things to say regardless of the outcome but, obviously, the speeches are going to be slightly different if he's assuming new responsibilities and if he's not, so we'll see.

Do you expect he'll be able to deliver a speech Tuesday night or Wednesday morning?

Well, we'll see. Again, we're not taking anything for granted. It feels like we'll know something on Tuesday night, but however long it takes we're prepared to wait.

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's ground game guru, told me a while back that you'll have eight million volunteers out on Election Day. True?

We've certainly been in contact with that many people. I don't know exactly how many have been mobilized but it's pretty impressive. Whatever happens on Tuesday, Barack said to us from the beginning that he wanted a campaign from the ground up because that's the kind of politics he believes in and that's how change happens and I think that without a shadow of a doubt we have accomplished that.

What are you going to do on Nov 5?

On Nov. 5, I'm going to depressurize and begin to try and make up to my family all the time that they have lost here. And you know what else I'm going to do? I'm probably going to shed a few tears for all the people that I have spent the last two years with day-in and day-out, 24-hours-a-day, who I won't be with in the future. Because one of the really rewarding parts of this has been the collegiality and the friendships. I mean, we're like a family and I keep thinking about the end of the movie M.A.S.H. You know, the war is over and we're all glad to be going home but there's this melancholy because we're all so close. These are relationships that have been forged in battle here and these are relationships you'll cherish for the rest of your life. So I'll be relieved, I'll be happy to get back with my family. But this'll be something that I'll always remember.

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