Another Look at Obama-Clinton Tug of War during the Primaries.

Evan Thomas
In the days after his wife's back- from-the-brink victory in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton was full of righteous indignation. The former president had amassed an 81-page list of all the unfair and nasty things the Obama campaign had said, or was alleged to have said, about Hillary Clinton. The press was still in love with Obama, or so it seemed to Clinton, who complained to pretty much anyone who would listen. If the press wouldn't go after Obama, then Hillary's campaign would have to do the job, the ex-president urged. On Sunday, Jan. 13, Clinton got worked up in a phone conversation with Donna Brazile, a direct, strong-willed African-American woman who had been Al Gore's campaign manager and advised the Clintons from time to time. "If Barack Obama is nominated, it will be the worst denigration of public service," he told her, ranting on for much of an hour. Brazile kept asking him, "Why are you so angry?"

The former president was restless and petulant; that was obvious. Exactly why was a psychologist's guessing game. He seemed anxious that his wife was blowing the chance to get the Clintons back in the White House. At some deeper level, the armchair shrinks speculated, he was jealous of her. Or, in some strange way, he may have been envious of Obama. Clinton was proud of the fact that some blacks called him "America's first black president," because of his comfort and empathy with African-Americans. Obama was upstaging him by threatening to truly become America's first black president. More vexingly, Obama, in remarks to some reporters in Nevada, had praised Ronald Reagan as a true change agent and seemingly dismissed Bill Clinton as an incidental politician. It was always hard for Clinton to be anything but the most amazing person in the room, the "smartest boy in the class," as author David Maraniss had once described him. Clinton wanted to be a major player in his wife's campaign, and he used an office sometimes inhabited by Mark Penn or Mandy Grunwald at Clinton headquarters in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington. But the staff, including the campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, found his presence, complete with Secret Service, to be uncomfortable, sometimes intimidating. They were happier when he was on the road—that is, as long as he stayed on message, which was never for very long.

Bill Clinton was enormously effective at the Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19, working the casinos in his larger-than-life way, charming the off-duty waitresses and croupiers. Hillary's narrow victory in Nevada had sustained her post-New Hampshire comeback momentum. The former president wanted to go to South Carolina for the next Democratic test, the Jan. 26 primary. He was sure his touch with African-American voters would blunt Obama's natural advantage (almost half the Democratic voters in South Carolina are black). The campaign staff was not so sure, and scheduled him for only the briefest of visits. But Hillary sided with her husband when the staff briefed her on their minimalist approach to South Carolina. "This is crazy," she said. "Bill needs to go to South Carolina."

He was a disaster. He turned purple yelling at reporters for asking annoying questions. He pointedly compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, who had won the South Carolina caucuses in 1984 and 1988 by appealing directly to black votes. The liberal establishment was appalled—the president seemed to be clumsily playing the race card by trying to marginalize Obama as the "black candidate." Blacks were also put off. Hillary Clinton lost the African-American vote in South Carolina by 86 to 14. At Clinton headquarters, a meeting was hastily convened and a simple message went out: you cannot dis Obama in any way that suggests race. A campaign emissary secretly approached Jesse Jackson. Would he write a letter saying, in effect, no big deal? Jackson replied that he wasn't offended by Clinton's remarks—but declined to say so in a public letter. The Clintons could see their black base, so carefully and genuinely built up over the years, beginning to crumble. The old civil-rights generation was in an awkward place. New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Harold Ickes, "You don't understand what it's like. We get called 'house Negro' and 'handkerchief head' by our constituents because we're supporting Hillary." Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the movement (he had been beaten repeatedly while demonstrating in the South in the '60s) and a conscience of the Democratic Party, switched his support from Clinton to Obama.

Sen. Edward Kennedy had a difficult phone conversation with Bill Clinton about his divisive campaigning. "Well, they started it," Clinton told Kennedy. "I don't think that's true," said Kennedy. On Jan. 28, Senator Kennedy and, perhaps more significant, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, held a press conference in Washington to endorse Obama. Clinton campaign aides were distraught and partly blamed Hillary. Despite urging from the staff, she had failed to call Caroline to enlist her support. For all her brassiness and grit onstage, Hillary was privately reluctant to call donors and supporters. She didn't really like arm-twisting one-on-one. She was no LBJ, thought Harold Ickes.

Caroline Kennedy had never endorsed a candidate who was not a member of the Kennedy clan. But she wrote a New York Times op-ed casting Obama in the mold of John F. Kennedy. Solis Doyle saw the ad, and thought, "Oh, my God, we're done."

For the record, the Obama campaign did not worry that race would swing the election. "I think we may lose some votes, but we also may gain some votes because of it," said David Axelrod. "I don't think it will determine the outcome." But when asked about race, Obama campaign officials often seemed touchy and guarded, as if race was a subject best not discussed. In fact, they had reason to worry that racial prejudice could become a factor, albeit in subtle ways and blended with other biases. A good part of Obama's appeal was that he was post-racial (although Obama himself shied away from this somewhat utopian notion). For some voters, however, race mattered.

Polling on race is notoriously difficult; voters rarely admit to prejudice. Polls suggested that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of voters thought that race would be an important factor in the election. Some of these were black voters who were likely to vote for Obama, and some were white. Few whites were flat-out racists, and most of those would vote Republican anyway. But some older and working-class voters, particularly in Appalachia, the mountainous spine that runs from upper New York state to the Deep South, harbored lingering apprehensions and resentments toward African-Americans. Their motives were often mixed and hard to read. In critical swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, these voters potentially held the balance of power; they had once been solid New Deal Democrats but had broken away to vote for Reagan in the 1980s, and now their allegiance was up for grabs. The Obama staffers did not believe that Clinton (or the Republicans in the fall) would make a naked appeal on racial lines. On the other hand, they well understood that clever political operatives could play on fears of Obama as "the Other," an exotic blend of dark skin and alien background. They could point out, in thinly veiled ways, that Obama did not share their cultural values—they could paint him as a Harvard elitist, a professor type who looked down on gun owners and wanted to turn America into a mongrel nation. Obama's middle name (Hussein) and Muslim ancestry on his father's side were a problem. Polls consistently showed that more than 10 percent of voters thought Obama was Muslim, no matter how often he made clear that he was Christian.

Axelrod thought that Bill Clinton's remark about Jesse Jackson was a gratuitous way of injecting race into the campaign. "Pretty darn intentional," he told a reporter in late January. Axelrod nurtured a healthy paranoia, and he didn't entirely trust the Clintons not to play on the politics of fear. He thought of the Clinton campaign as Jaws, he told the reporter. The water might seem calm now, but …

Obama continued to appear to float above it all. In late November, he had met with a group of successful black women in public life that called itself the "Colored Girls Club." The lunch had been arranged by Donna Brazile, who counseled Obama as well as Clinton. Obama told the group that as far as he was concerned, race would not become a topic; he made clear that he would not play identity politics. In South Carolina, the Obama campaign refused to indulge in the time-honored, if slightly disreputable, practice of dispensing "walking-around money" to activists and preachers in the black community. The Clintons, by contrast, continued to hand out the usual favors and cash. Obama not only won the black vote overwhelmingly, he also won the state of South Carolina by 30 points. The press went back to calling him the favorite to win the nomination. As he watched Bill Clinton's favorability rating drop 17 points in a single week around the South Carolina primary, Obama didn't say anything, Axelrod observed. The candidate just shook his head—and smiled.

It may have been a Cheshire-cat grin, but Obama was not a gloater. There was no high-fiving or obvious schadenfreude. As Axelrod saw him, Obama didn't enjoy a good hate. That would be a waste of time and emotion, and Obama was, if nothing else, highly disciplined.

Obama carefully conserved his energy. He was not a man of appetites, like Bill Clinton, who would grab whatever goodie passed by on the tray. Obama was abstemious. Indeed, to the reporters following him, he appeared very nearly anorexic. Most candidates gain the Campaign 10 (or 15). Hillary was struggling with her waistline, as she gamely knocked back shots and beers in working-class bars and gobbled the obligatory sausage sandwiches thrust at her in greasy spoons along the Trail of the White Working-Class Voter. Obama, by contrast, lost weight. He regularly ate the same dinner of salmon, rice and broccoli. At Schoop's Hamburgers, a diner in Portage, Ind., he munched a single french fry and ordered four hamburgers—to go. At the Copper Dome Restaurant, a pancake house in St. Paul, Minn., he ordered pancakes—to go. (An AP reporter wondered: who gets pancakes for the road?) A waiter reeled off a long list of richly topped flapjacks, but Obama went for the plain buttermilk, saying, "I'm kind of traditionalist." Reporters joked that if he ate a single bite of burger or pancake once the doors of his dark-tinted SUV closed, they'd eat their BlackBerrys. Frustrated by reporters fishing for trivial "gaffes," Obama did not like coming back to the plane to talk to the press. As he trudged back from time to time to deal with the reporters' incessant questions, he looked like a suburban dad, slump-shouldered after a long day at the office, taking out the trash.

His one true recreation and release was basketball. In early February, a reporter joined Obama's standard game, whose regulars included some good players, including Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, a former Princeton player who coaches basketball at Oregon State University, and Reggie Love, Obama's "body man," his all-purpose valet, who stands 6 feet 4 and had played at Duke. Obama was wearing long sweatpants; alone among the players he did not remove them to reveal the skinny legs beneath. Obama is not a natural under the hoop. He doesn't glide. His motion is herky-jerky, from the dangerously high bounce of his dribble to the way he pumps his knees when he runs, chest out, like an Army recruit running in formation. But he could show surprising quickness, snapping a crossover dribble in front of an inattentive defender and driving past him for a layup—a savvy departure from the unhurried, deliberate pace at which he usually plays.

Obama has always been fiercely competitive and not above stacking his team with the best players. This led to at least one loud argument on the court with his friend Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, in the tense days before the Iowa caucuses. Obama had loaded his team with Love and some other hot shots, and Giannoulias's team was losing badly. "So I got mad and started yelling at him—'I want to win too!' " recalled Giannoulias. "And it got under his skin." Obama responded, with rare heat, "I don't care who I play with. I'll play with anybody! You want to switch teams? We can switch teams if you want!" Giannoulias declined, out of pique more than anything, he recalled. "And then he just gave me this smile," Giannoulias said, mimicking Obama's signature smile, teeth flashing, eyes crinkled, chin slightly tucked in, a surprising gleam of warmth, guaranteed to disarm.

Obama's slightly ethereal presence on the campaign trail was balanced by his down-to-earth wife, who had her own travel schedule and was beginning to appear on women's shows like "The View." The idea was to show her as an appealing mom and regular gal—and also, as the situation required, a classy woman. She was all of that, and yet to some voters she was a not a reassuring figure.

Michelle Obama is not ascetic like her husband. She has long been familiar with Chicago's chicest clothing stores, and she'll "eat a cheeseburger in a heartbeat," said Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, her close friend from Chicago (Rucker-Whitaker's husband, Eric, is a friend of Obama's from Harvard days and often plays basketball with him). Michelle's favorite drink, said Rucker-Whitaker, is champagne. "She likes clothes, she's always loved clothes, she loves purses, she loves getting a manicure, getting her hair done. She really is a girly girl." Tall and beautiful, she caused flutters (and raised a few eyebrows) when she appeared onstage at a victory celebration dressed in a soignée, early-'60s style reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy. She was a Princeton and Harvard Law grad, formidable and elegant but at the same time playful. While her husband was a dreamer and serious, she was the practical one and a bit of a jokester and teaser. There was no doubting their physical attraction. Reporters liked to snicker at how much looser the candidate seemed after spending the occasional night at home or on the road with his wife.

She was also more deeply rooted in black America than Obama, whose mother had been white and who had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Though no one on the Obama staff talked about it much, there was no doubt that Michelle's self-conscious blackness was unsettling to that narrow but important slice of swing voters, the so-called Reagan Democrats, older working-class voters in the Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Michelle was from the South Side of Chicago; the white political machine of Chicago had intentionally segregated Chicago, cutting off the South Side with a highway, and racial politics were played hard in the place Michelle grew up. At Princeton in the early 1980s, Michelle felt like an outsider at an elitist college that began taking blacks only after World War II. Her senior thesis for the sociology department examined whether African-American graduates of Princeton identified with "white society" as they enjoyed upward mobility. Beneath its academic formalism, her writing has a rueful quality—she clearly (and accurately) expected to be drawn into the white world upon graduation, but wrote that, even so, she expected to "remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant." In fact, she became a lawyer at a fancy Chicago law firm (where she met her future husband, who was interning for the summer from Harvard) and later a high-level hospital administrator. But she never forgot her roots. When some African-Americans began grumbling that her husband was not "black enough," Michelle was the one who directly confronted the issue, bluntly telling a South Side of Chicago crowd, "Stop that nonsense."

For the most part, Michelle Obama was a poised and confident campaigner. But in late February, when her husband was on a roll, winning caucus after caucus, she slipped up. She told a Milwaukee audience, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." The Republicans quickly jumped on the intimation that she had not been proud of her country before then. The next day, Cindy McCain told a rally, "I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you—if you heard those words earlier—I'm very proud of my country." Right-wing talk radio began to portray Michelle as a latter-day Angela Davis, a fire-breathing '60s-type black radical, but the mainstream press steered clear of any race baiting. So did the Clinton campaign. In March, Mark Penn suggested that the campaign target Obama's "lack of American roots," and drape Hillary in the flag as much as possible. The idea seemed to be to subtly emphasize Obama's "otherness." To the Clintons' credit, they chose not to go down this route, at least not in any overt way.

Sometimes it seemed as though Hillary Clinton's campaign staffers were more interested in destroying each other than Obama. Patti Solis Doyle was finally fired on Feb. 10, and a messy scene greeted her replacement, Maggie Williams.

Staffers were trying to work, sort of, and ignore the sounds coming from the office of communications director Howard Wolfson. "He's going to ruin this f–––ing campaign!" shouted Phil Singer, Wolfson's deputy. No one was quite sure who "he" was, but most assumed it was Penn, the chief strategist who was in more or less constant conflict with Hillary's other top advisers. Wolfson said something indistinct in response, and Singer cut loose, "F––– you, Howard," and stormed out of his office. Policy director Neera Tanden had the misfortune of standing in his path. "F––– you, too!" screamed Singer. "F––– you," Tanden started. "And the whole f–––ing cabal," Singer, now standing on a chair, shouted loudly enough to be heard by the entire war room. "I'm done." Within a week or two Singer was back, still steaming and swearing. "If the house is on fire, would you rather have a psychotic fireman or no fireman at all?" Wolfson explained to Williams. A former top aide to Bill Clinton, Williams was regarded as a grown-up, but she wasn't eager to play hall monitor. She had been living quietly with her husband on Long Island, away from the Clinton melodrama, and she didn't appear to have her heart in the battle when a reporter later met with her in the spring of 2008. At the time, commentators were beginning to accuse Hillary of running as the White Candidate. An African-American woman, Williams seemed almost despondent worrying about the effect on young staffers, black and white, of being accused of racism.

Even though the campaign raised more than $100 million before Iowa, money was chronically short. "The cupboard is bare," Harold Ickes announced after New Hampshire at a stunned staff meeting. No one seemed quite sure where it had all gone, though there were a lot of bitter jokes about Hillary's penchant for G4 business jets and Mark Penn's hefty bills for polling and direct mail. Fundraising was getting tougher that winter. A top aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "Our donors were so disillusioned, particularly with Bill Clinton. The whole Clinton mishegoss—people said, if she can't control him in the campaign, how could she control him in the White House? We took a pounding." The campaign aides suggested that the Clintons loan $5 million from their personal fortune before the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5. "Let's do it," Bill Clinton said immediately, but Solis Doyle could hear hesitation in Hillary's voice. She came around, and when word got out that she was tapping her own money, contributions poured in—many from women.

Shortly after Williams took over, she called a major meeting for senior staff. Penn was given the floor, and he began to walk through all the iterations of Hillary slogans: "Solutions for America," "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead," "Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President …" Penn marched down the long list.

But then he seemed to get a little lost. "Um, uh, 'Working for Change, Working for You' …" There was silence, then sniggers, as Penn tried to remember all the bumper stickers, which, run together, sounded absurd and indistinguishable. "Ehhh … 'The Hillary I Know' …" Penn trailed off, and the meeting moved on.

But it was Penn who finally came up with an ad that worked, on the eve of the Ohio and Texas primaries in early March, when the Clinton campaign was in true do-or-die mode. It began with the sound of a phone ringing in the hours before dawn. Accompanied by portentous music, the ad played to the insecurities of the so-called security moms, who had been shaken by 9/11 and had voted heavily for George W. Bush in 2004. Penn called the "Red Phone 3 a.m." ad a "game changer." Mandy Grunwald, the campaign's ad maker, had opposed it. When someone in the room at a senior staff meeting said, "Great ad!" Grunwald, who was talking by speakerphone, snapped, "This is Mark's ad, not my ad."

Morale was at a low ebb in the Clinton campaign by early March. Incredibly, the campaign had been caught by surprise by Obama's tortoise-and-hare strategy. While Hillary won some big states on Super Tuesday, including New York, California, New Jersey and—take that, Ted Kennedy!—Massachusetts, Obama had been racking up delegates in smaller states, particularly caucus states, where he was organized and Clinton was not. Given the way delegates were apportioned, Obama had amassed a nearly insurmountable lead by the time of the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. At one meeting around the time of Super Tuesday, Ickes tried—for the umpteenth time, it seemed—to explain the mechanics of proportional representation. When President Clinton said, "Oh, hell, we didn't have this stuff in 1992," Ickes nearly "fell off his chair," as he later put it, because the system had been essentially the same back then. Ickes grumbled to reporters that Penn didn't even know that California wasn't winner-take-all; Penn denied it.

But Hillary did win Ohio and she did win Texas, though narrowly, and once more she had stepped back from the brink. For Obama, there was some disturbing news in the breakdown of the voting results. He had crossed over the demographic divide in industrial Wisconsin in February, winning older and blue-collar voters, white as well as black. But in Ohio the gap stubbornly returned: Hillary was the darling of older, white working-class voters. The Obama camp was beginning to suspect that the Clinton campaign, while assiduously avoiding any race baiting by the candidate or her senior staff or advisers, was perfectly content to let others do the dirty work, operating through surrogates and the bottom-feeding press. A picture of Obama in Somali garb was leaked to the Drudge Report. Clinton surrogate Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio (who was African-American) said that Obama shouldn't be ashamed to be seen in his "native clothes." In Youngstown, Ohio, the president of the International Machinists Union endorsed Clinton; its president, Tom Buffenbarger, took a swipe at Obama at a Hillary rally, shouting, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust-fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! He won't stand a chance against the Republican attack machine!" Reporters noticed that in the bathroom there were copies of an infamous "Obama is a Muslim" e-mail printed out and strewn about.

Obama was not one to cast blame, at least not too obviously or too loudly. After his campaign spent $20 million to win Texas and still lost, he ran through a list of mistakes with his staff, not laying any blame on anyone in particular. He stood up to leave, and as he walked out of the conference room of campaign headquarters on Michigan Avenue, he turned around and said, "I'm not yelling at you guys." He took another few steps and turned around again and said, "Of course, after blowing through $20 million in a couple of weeks, I could yell at you. But …" He paused. "I'm not yelling at you." He laughed and walked out the door.

Obama had to strain to stay cool when the Reverend Wright fiasco hit in mid-March. Later that spring, after the hubbub had abated and Obama sat down to give his version of events, he was puzzled, chagrined and a little defensive. His advisers saw Jeremiah Wright as a true threat to Obama's candidacy. For Obama, the fiery and vain reverend was a continuing source of vexation and personal pain.

Obama told a NEWSWEEK reporter that he had known from the beginning that Wright could be trouble. Shortly before Obama announced for the presidency in February 2007, Wright had made some "pretty incendiary" remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Obama recalled. Still, he had not wanted to sever his ties to Wright. Obama had long regarded the preacher as a kind of "uncle." In his memoirs, he had credited Wright with "bringing me to Jesus"—as well as showing him the power of the black church as a community organizer. Wright had married Obama and baptized his daughters. Obama told the NEWSWEEK reporter that, though he had been Wright's parishioner at Trinity United Church of Christ for almost two decades, he was often away campaigning, which meant attending other churches, or doing something else with his young family on Sunday mornings. He had, he said, missed many of Wright's sermons.

But back in early February 2007, as he read Wright's heated rhetoric about racial injustice in America, printed in the Rolling Stone story titled "The Radical Roots of Barack Obama," Obama had thought to himself, "This doesn't sound real good." In a few days, Wright was scheduled to give the invocation at Obama's announcement ceremony at the state capitol in Springfield, Ill. Partly because he wanted to protect Wright's church from getting entangled in politics, Obama called Wright and told him, "You know what, you probably shouldn't introduce me. There's going to be about 500 press credentials there; you don't want a whole bunch of mikes suddenly stuck in your face without any preparation or expectation." Wright, as would later become excruciatingly clear, loved microphones, the more the better, but this time he got the message. He would stay offstage. "I know that disappointed him," Obama recalled, "and I think he might have felt some anger about that."

Wright did not stay quiet for long. He soon gave his version of what happened between him and Obama to a reporter from The New York Times. He told the Times that one of Obama's advisers had "talked him into disinviting me," and that Obama had told him, "You can get pretty rough in the sermons, so what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out in public." Obama was miffed when he saw Wright's comments, but decided not to break with him then and there. "He was retiring; I had a strong commitment to the church community … My instinct was to let him stay out of the limelight and not make a bigger deal out of it," Obama recalled to the reporter. However, Obama said that he had told his staff: "Let's pull every single sermon that Wright made, because it could be an issue, and it could be attributed to me, and let's at least know what we're dealing with." He added: "That never got done."

The normally careful Obama team dropped the ball. Axelrod told the NEWSWEEK reporter, "I had been asking" for a "readout of all his sermons," but "I didn't get it." (He blamed himself for not following up.) Instead, the campaign watched with growing dismay on the evening of Thursday, March 13, 2008—less than two weeks after the Texas and Ohio primaries—as ABC News aired video clips of the Reverend Wright, delivering a sermon on the Sunday after September 11 declaring that "America's chickens are coming home to roost" for its own acts of "terrorism" and fulminating, "God damn America … that's in the Bible! For killing innocent people! God damn America!"

As it happened, Obama was in the middle of another potential mess, dealing with questions about his relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago fixer convicted of extorting bribes from lawmakers. In 2006, Obama had bought a small piece of property next to his Chicago home from Rezko—nothing illegal; the Obamas had paid a fair price—but as Obama acknowledged, any personal financial dealing with an influence peddler like Rezko looked bad, especially for a would-be political reformer. That Thursday night in March, as the Reverend Wright story was exploding on cable TV—an endless loop of video clips of Wright ranting—Obama was scheduled to go to the Chicago Tribune offices the next day and spend "as long as necessary" answering questions about Rezko. During his nearly three-hour grilling at the Tribune building on March 14, Obama patiently answered questions, in a thorough if lawyerly way, until there were no more.

Obama was worn out, or should have been. But that same night, he announced to David Axelrod, "I want to do a speech on race." Axelrod's own instinct was to get as far away from the Reverend Wright as possible. Other top staffers were also wary of making any broad statements about race. Obama's top staffers avoided the topic of race, not only publicly, but in their internal deliberations. Only one of the top staffers, Valerie Jarrett, was black. She would occasionally push the campaign to be more race-conscious, insisting that Obama's ads in Iowa include some photos of blacks as well as whites. But other top staffers saw Obama's racial ambiguity as an asset. If black voters wanted to claim him as the black candidate, fine. If voters wanted to see him as biracial or post-racial, that was fine, too. David Plouffe thought that race was mostly a distraction—his eye was always on the numbers, on racking up the delegates. He did not want Obama in any way to be defined by racial politics.

Obama himself had an intuitive sense of when to emphasize his blackness, and when not to. When he was speaking to crowds of black voters, he would use a deeper voice and seem more casual and instinctive; with whites, his voice would become flatter and more nasal, his attitude more deliberate. He had a way of telling his black supporters to just shrug off racial innuendo. He used a phrase borrowed from Malcolm X to warn black voters to ignore Internet rumors (like the one that he had taken an oath of office by swearing on a Qur'an). "They're trying to bamboozle you," Obama said at one event in South Carolina in January. "It's the same old okie-doke. Y'all know about okie-doke, right? ... They try to bamboozle you. Hoodwink ya. Try to hoodwink ya." He seemed to catch himself: "All right, I'm having too much fun here," he said, and changed the topic. Obama knew when to distance himself from black nationalists. Over Valerie Jarrett's objections (she was afraid he would alienate black voters), he had denounced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan during a debate in the fall.

Wright's rants needed to be answered. But how? There was no great internal debate within Obama's staff, in part because no one really knew what to do. But Obama did. Although, back in November, he had breezily told Donna Brazile and her "Colored Girls" group that he would not bring up race, in fact his own search for his racial identity was central to his being, and he knew that sooner or later he might have to broach the subject with voters. For several months, he had been thinking about giving a broader speech on the subject of race, and now the moment had arrived. Obama had his own sense of timing and purpose. He knew that Wright's remarks could stir racial fears that could become a cancer on the campaign unless some steps were taken to cut it out, and that he was the only one skillful enough to attempt the operation.

Obama spent much of the next three nights working on the speech, which he essentially wrote himself. Delivered at an appropriate setting—a museum devoted to the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia—his half-hour address was a tour de force, the sort of speech that only Barack Obama could give. He had taken some saccharine but sincere advice from his mother—to judge not, to always look for the good in people—and internalized a true sense of tolerance. He had the ability to empathize with both sides— to summon the fear and resentment felt by blacks for years of oppression, but also to talk about how whites (including his grandmother) could fear young black men on the street, and how whites might resent racial preferences for blacks in jobs and schools. He ended with a moving scene, a story of reconciliation between an older black man and a young white woman.

When he walked backstage at the Constitution museum, he found everyone in tears—his wife, his friends and his hardened campaign aides. Only Obama seemed cool and detached. The speech was "solid," he said, as his entourage, tough guys like Axelrod and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, choked up. The candidate had seemed unflappable the whole weekend, his late nights notwithstanding. He was, from time to time, given to moments of mild amusement. While the Obamas and their aides were dining the night before, Marty Nesbitt, Obama's close friend and basketball buddy, called Obama on his cell phone and said, "Man, look, this is like a blessing in disguise." Obama held the phone away and said to the table, dryly, "Nesbitt says this is a blessing in disguise." On the other end, Nesbitt could hear the laughter. "Really," Nesbitt spluttered, "this is really a blessing in disguise." Obama replied, "Yeah, well …" and Nesbitt could hear more raucous laughter.

But it was a blessing in disguise. Wright gave Obama a chance to deal directly with issues that had been the source of whispering or underhanded attacks in the lower precincts of politics, to take the high road on a matter of pressing national importance but on a subject that can be difficult to honestly discuss. He had shown calm good judgment.

Nonetheless, a close reading of the speech suggests more than a hint of personal grandiosity. Obama was giving the voters a choice: they could stay "stuck" in a "racial stalemate." Or they could get beyond it—by, well, voting for him. "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election … We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will flock to John McCain … We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And then nothing will change." But if you vote for me—now—this time, Obama strongly implied, blacks and whites could come together and deal with the greater challenges facing the country, of health care and education, want and war. At times like this, Obama seemed to project that he was "the One" that Oprah had rhapsodized about. In the speech, he was careful to be modest ("I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy—particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own"). But the implicit message was: I Am the One, Choose Me—or this historic moment may pass, never to be recovered.

The Clinton campaign was careful not to exploit the Wright imbroglio, or at least careful not to get caught at it. At Clinton headquarters, Harold Ickes took a call from Greg Sargent, a reporter from Talking Points Memo, one of the new generation of bloggers shaking up the old media. Sargent wanted to know, does Wright ever come up in conversations with superdelegates? The superdelegates, party leaders and top congressional Democrats, were Clinton's last hope as Obama rolled toward a majority of elected delegates. They could, theoretically at least, save her candidacy, though they would have to buck the popular vote to do so. Ickes talked to superdelegates every day, trying to hang on to their support. He told TPM that, yes, the superdelegates were concerned about Wright. He soon received a call from Maggie Williams, the campaign boss. Harold, she said, we don't need to be talking about the Reverend Wright.

Hillary Clinton believed that Obama's problems with white working-class voters made him unelectable, and she could be blunt about it when she got on the phone with superdelegates who threatened to switch to Obama. "Bill, he can't win!" she shouted on the phone to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. The Clintons were particularly anxious to cultivate the support of Richardson, who was popular with Hispanics. Bill Clinton had watched the Super Bowl with Richardson; cameras recorded the scene—two slightly overweight middle-aged men catching a ball game but not looking all that comfortable in each other's company. In the end, Richardson endorsed Obama. James Carville, the Clintons' favorite hit man, compared Richardson to Judas.

The Clintons' dream of restoration was dying. Yet, curiously, in many ways Hillary Clinton found her voice in the spring of 2008. At rallies, recalled Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who was brought in in a last-ditch attempt to bring peace and order to the campaign, people would come up to the senator and say, "Don't give up." At a debate in Austin, Texas, she gave a very moving closing statement about the people who had it much tougher than she did. Hoarse and bleary-eyed, she bounced around the country (this time in a charter plane with staff and press—no more private business jets), performing with a combination of gumption and grace.

But she undercut her diminishing chances in April by inexplicably boasting that she had come under sniper fire at an airport in the Balkans during her husband's presidency. She was trying to show that she was a battle-hardened global peacemaker, but since there were videotapes of her being greeted by happy schoolchildren on the tarmac, the press had a field day mocking her. Obama made his own gaffe—telling some rich San Francisco fundraisers that the working-class people in Pennsylvania clung to guns and God out of "bitterness." There was some truth to Obama's off-hand remark (the definition of a "gaffe," columnist Michael Kinsley wrote, is a politician telling the truth). But to many proud and faithful gun-owning members of the working class, Obama was just plain wrong and certainly condescending. The "bitterness" remark risked long-term damage. It opened him to the charge that he was an effete academic snob, out of touch with working-class people.

The campaign drifted into a kind of grinding stasis, with Clinton unable to overcome Obama's lead but Obama unable to finally clinch the nomination. The low point for Obama came at the end of April, when the Reverend Wright popped up again. First in a sympathetic interview with Bill Moyerson PBS, then in a thumping speech to the NAACP and finally in an over-the-top performance at the National Press Club, Wright did his best to draw the spotlight back on him and on his wide set of grievances. Egged on by a claque of cheering black ministers at the press club, Wright delivered what Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times described as "a rich, stem-winding brew of black history, Scripture, hallelujahs and hermeneutics." Waiting to go live for the event, MSNBC called David Axelrod for comment on Wright. "He is doing his own thing," said Axelrod, wearily. "There's nothing we can do about it."

In Chicago, Eric Whitaker, Obama's close friend, watched the rebroadcast with alarm. "I called him [Obama] that night and told him that he really needed to watch the video of it," Whitaker said. "He told me, 'I don't know if I can. I think it's going to be too painful to watch'."

A week later, with close contests in Indiana and North Carolina looming, Whitaker and two others of Obama's close friends, Marty Nesbitt and Valerie Jarrett, went to support the candidate as he attended a Stevie Wonder concert and worked a factory late shift in North Carolina. It was a "low period," Jarrett recalled, as the four of them stood in the drizzle and the mud waiting for the factory workers. Obama was "hurt" and "struggling," she recalled. Nesbitt found him anxious and fretful, shaken "off his usual steady state." Obama liked to control his own story, and now he was being "subjected to someone else's craziness," Whitaker recalled. The three friends tried to lighten Obama's mood, joking around about nothing in particular. "We had him laughing for a minute," said Nesbitt. "But it was laughter to keep from crying," said Whitaker. Then Axelrod arrived to announce, "The polls in Indiana look really, really bad," and everyone shouted, "Come o-o-o-o-on," recalled Jarrett.

But the next night Obama won big in North Carolina even as he was losing narrowly in Indiana. On NBC, Tim Russert, regarded as an oracle by his peers and most of the political world, pronounced, "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one is going to dispute it." It was finally over—except that it wasn't, quite—not until Hillary Clinton surrendered.

She was determined to campaign to the last, hoping against hope that the superdelegates would come around to her argument that Obama was unelectable. This was not an argument that he wanted to get caught up in. From the headquarters of the "No-Drama Obama" campaign the word went out: do not engage, do not inflame, do not say or do anything that might suggest Clinton did not have the right to finish the campaign. On one conference call, someone said, "We've just got to keep biting our lips, biting our lips." Adman Jim Margolis piped up, "OK, but my lip is starting to hurt."

Obama shook off his disappointment about Wright and kept on campaigning, though it was obvious that he was not happy burning time and money that could have been spent turning to John McCain. On May 20, the night of the primaries in Oregon (a satisfying win in a liberal state) and Kentucky (another discouraging blowout in Appalachia; he had lost West Virginia the week before by 41 points), he stood off-stage at the Des Moines Historical Society Museum in Iowa. He had wanted to go back to the state of his first great triumph to give a speech unofficially kicking off the fall campaign, even though Clinton officially was still in the race. "That's an interesting belt buckle," he said to Michelle, mischievously. She feigned offense and said, "I am interesting, next to you. Surprise, surprise, a blue suit, a white shirt and a tie." Obama grinned and bent down until he was almost at eye level with her waist. He jabbed a playful finger toward her belt buckle, and let loose his inner nerd. "The lithium crystals! Beam me up, Scotty!" Obama squeaked, laughing at his own lame joke as Michelle rolled her eyes.

On June 3, the last day of the longest-ever primary season, Obama finally secured enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee. It was midnight before the Obama plane was wheels-up out of Minnesota, a state he needed to keep blue in November. The candidate had just given a rousing speech. If ever there was a time to party, this was it. "OK, pretty big night," Jim Margolis said to Obama. "You just locked up the nomination—how about a beer?" Obama started to say yes, then stopped. "We won't hit the ground until 3 in the morning, and I've got AIPAC first thing—I better not," he said. "OK, I'll have two," said Margolis. Obama was anxious about AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Elderly Jewish voters in Florida—a key swing state in November—were telling reporters that they were leery of Obama, that some of them were not ready to vote for an African-American. The real campaign had begun.

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The Secret Battles and Private Fears Behind Barack Obama's Victory

Barack Obama had a gift, and he knew it. He had a way of making very smart, very accomplished people feel virtuous just by wanting to help Barack Obama. It had happened at Harvard Law School in the mid-1980s, at a time when the school was embroiled in fights over political correctness. He had won one of the truly plum prizes of overachievement at Harvard: he had been voted president of the law review, the first African-American ever so honored. Though his politics were conventionally (if not stridently) liberal, even the conservatives voted for him. Obama was a good listener, attentive and empathetic, and his powerful mind could turn disjointed screeds into reasoned consensus, but his appeal lay in something deeper. He was a black man who had moved beyond racial politics and narrowly defined interest groups. He seemed indifferent to, if not scornful of, the politics of identity and grievance. He showed no sense of entitlement or resentment. Obama had a way of transcending ambition, though he himself was ambitious as hell. In the grasping race for status and achievement—a competition that can seem like blood lust at a place like Harvard—Obama could make hypersuccessful meritocrats pause and remember a time (part mythical perhaps, but still beckoning) when service to others was more important than serving oneself.

Gregory Craig, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., was one of those Americans who wanted to believe again. Craig was not exactly an ordinary citizen—he had served and worked with the powerful all his life, as an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1980s, as chief of policy planning at the State Department in the Clinton administration and as a lawyer hired to represent President Clinton at his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in 1999. He had seen the imperfections of the mighty, up close and personal, and by and large accepted human frailty. But, like a lot of Americans, he was tired of partisan bickering and yearned for someone who could rise above politics as usual. A 63-year-old baby boomer, Craig wanted to recapture the youthful idealism that he had experienced as a student at Harvard in the 1960s and later at Yale Law School, where his friends included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. In the late fall of 2003, he was invited to hear a young state senator from Illinois who was running for the U.S. Senate. Craig was immediately taken with Barack Obama. "He spoke 20 to 30 minutes, and I found him to be funny, smart and very knowledgeable for a state senator," Craig recalled. Craig was so visibly impressed that his host that evening, the longtime Washington mover and shaker Vernon Jordan, teased him, saying, "Greg has just fallen in love."

It was true. Craig read Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope," which, Craig said, "floored me," and later chanced to ride with Obama on the Washington shuttle. He read Obama's earlier autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," and was "blown away," he recalled. "In my judgment, he showed more insight and maturity than Bill Clinton at the age of 60 in terms of understanding himself." In November 2006, Craig sat next to George Stevens, an old friend of the Robert Kennedy clan, at another Obama speech. Stevens leaned over to Craig and said, "What do you think of this guy for president? I haven't heard anybody like this since Bobby Kennedy." Craig instantly replied, "Sign me up." Stevens and Craig approached Obama coming out of the speech and asked, "What are you doing in 2008?" Obama gave them a big grin and said, "Oh, man, it wasn't that good." But before long Craig and Stevens were raising money for Obama's political-action committee, the Hope Fund. Obama was amused by the devotion of the two old Kennedy hands. After a while, every time he saw the two men he would say, "Here come the Kool-Aid boys."

That December of 2006, Obama told Craig and Stevens, "Lay off me for a while. I've got to talk to Michelle." Obama went off to Hawaii with his wife and two girls for the holidays. "I thought, 'We're dead'," recalled Craig. "He's not going to be able to do it."

Craig was not wrong to be pessimistic. Obama could marshal a lawyerly set of arguments about how he could win, that the country was at a "defining point" and that Obama was the best hope to bring change. "I, I, I actually believe my own rhetoric," Obama stammered, uncharacteristically, in an interview with NEWSWEEK in the spring of 2008. But Michelle was not eager to subject her family to a process that was dangerous and ugly—uplifting and history-making, maybe, but also a potential family wrecker. Her kids would be given cute names by the Secret Service ("Radiance" and "Rosebud," as it turned out), but their lives would never be the same.

Obama had been warned. That November of 2006, at dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Washington, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle had reminded Obama that he had never really been attacked before. "I told him he should think about how he might react if his wife was attacked—the emotional discipline it takes," recalled Daschle. At about the same time, with his fellow Illinois senator, Richard Durbin, Obama had talked about the physical risks. At a political event at the Union League Club in Chicago before Thanksgiving, Obama told Durbin that many of his African-American friends were advising him not to run, some of them because they were afraid he would get killed. (Durbin shared their fears and began lobbying to get Obama put under Secret Service protection. In May, eight months before the first primary, the Secret Service would begin standing watch over Obama, the first time such protection had been extended to a candidate so early in the process.)

Michelle Obama was worried about her husband's safety, but was also seized with a kind of free-floating anxiety, recalled Durbin. Even after she said yes, she asked Durbin, "They're not setting him up, are they?" The "they" was all the people who were urging Obama to run. Michelle wondered at their motives.

Obama understood his wife's fears and even, to some degree, shared them, but he had a way of turning empathy into persuasion. "Her initial instinct was to say no," Obama recalled. "She knew how difficult it was for me to be away from the girls, she feels lonely when I'm not around, so her initial instinct was not to do it. And I think she also felt that, you know, the Clintons are tough, and that I would be subject to a lot of attacks." So that Christmas season, 2006, Michelle and Barack went for some long walks on the beach in Hawaii, where they were visiting his grandmother, and "just talked it through. It wasn't as if it was a slam-dunk for me," said Obama. "I think part of the reason she agreed to do it was because she knew that she had veto power, that she and the girls ultimately mattered more than my own ambitions in this process, and if she said no we would be OK." Michelle was able to extract a promise: if he ran, her husband would have to quit smoking.

In some ways, running for president was a preposterous idea for someone who had served as a two-term state legislator and had spent only two years in the United States Senate. But Obama, a careful student of his own unique journey, could see the stars coming into alignment—the country was exhausted by the Iraq War (which he, alone among leading candidates, had opposed as "dumb" from the outset). As Obama saw it, the conservative tide in America was ebbing, and voters were turning away from the Republican Party. People were sick of politicians of the standard variety and yearned for someone new—truly new and different. Another politician with a superb sense of timing, Bill Clinton, perfectly understood why Obama saw a golden, possibly once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity. The former president believed that the mainstream press, whose liberal guilt Clinton understood and had exploited from time to time, would act as Obama's personal chauffeur on the long journey ahead. "If somebody pulled up a Rolls-Royce to me and said, 'Get in'," Clinton liked to say, with admiration and maybe a little envy, "I'd get in it, too."

Barack Obama can be cocky about his star power. On the eve of his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party's hope of the future, he took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. "Man, you're like a rock star," Nesbitt said to Obama. "He looked at me," Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, "and said, 'Marty, you think it's bad today, wait until tomorrow.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'My speech is pretty good'."

Obama's 2004 convention speech launched him into the strange world of celebritydom; he acquired the kind of aura that can transform a skinny, scholarly man with big ears into a sex symbol. Eureka Gilkey, one of Obama's aides, recalled going with him when he made a speech to the Democratic National Committee shortly after he began his campaign. Obama was mobbed outside the bathroom. "These were DNC members; they're supposed to be jaded by politicians," recalled Gilkey. "Not trying to tear their shirts off. I remember going home that night, and my boyfriend saying, 'What is that purple bruise on your back?' I had bruises on my back from people pushing and shoving, trying to get to [Obama] … I remember grabbing women's hands because they were trying to pull his shirt from his pants. I couldn't believe it."

Obama was growing accustomed to adulation. Greg Craig was not the only old Kennedy hand to fall in love. At Coretta Scott King's funeral in early 2006, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, leaned over to him and whispered, "The torch is being passed to you." "A chill went up my spine," Obama told an aide. The funeral, he said, was "pretty intimidating."

Obama understood that he had become a giant screen upon which Americans projected their hopes and fears, dreams and frustrations. Maybe such a person never really existed, couldn't exist, but people wanted a savior nonetheless. As a bestselling memoirist he had created a mythic figure, a man named Barack Obama who had searched and quested and overcome travails, who had found an identity and a calling in public service. Obama recalled that he often joked with his team, "This Barack Obama sounds like a great guy. Now I'm not sure that I am Barack Obama, right?" He added, pointedly, "It wasn't entirely a joke."

In the first quarter of 2007, Obama put the political world on notice when he raised $24.8 million, more money than any other Democrat except Hillary Clinton, and drew huge crowds at his early rallies. But he was a tentative, awkward presence in the endless Democratic debates through the spring and summer of 2007. He didn't really seem to have his heart in it; he appeared to lack the required, almost pathological drive to be president. The campaign strategist, David Axelrod, told Obama he worried that the candidate was "too normal" to run a presidential campaign, and Obama began wondering himself. He missed going to the movies and reading a book and playing with his kids. He worried about "losing touch" with "what matters." To a NEWSWEEK reporter he said, "I'm not trying to say that I'm some sort of reluctant candidate—obviously this is a choice I made. But there was some tension there in my own mind." He seemed so distracted in one debate that one of his rivals, former senator John Edwards, came up to him during a break and scolded him, "Barack … you've got to focus."

Obama bridled at the sometimes mindless rituals and one-upmanship of a national political campaign in the age of cable news. He resented the pressure he felt to declare, as he put it to NEWSWEEK, that you "want to bomb the hell out of someone" to show toughness on terrorism. He was surprised when Hillary Clinton refused to shake his hand on the Senate floor after he declared his candidacy. And he was upset with his own campaign after a low-level staffer referred in a press release to Clinton as "(D-Punjab)" because of her ties to supporters of India. "I don't want you guys freelancing and, quote, protecting me from what you're doing," he lectured his staff. "I'm saying this loud and clear—no winks, no nods here," he said, irritated to take the heat for a clumsy dirty trick he had not known about and would never have authorized. "I'm looking at every one of you. If you think you're close to the line, the answer isn't to protect me—the answer is to ask me."

Obama was something unusual in a politician: genuinely self-aware. In late May 2007, he had stumbled through a couple of early debates and was feeling uncertain about what he called his "uneven" performance. "Part of it is psychological," he told his aides. "I'm still wrapping my head around doing this in a way that I think the other candidates just aren't. There's a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself. It's part of what makes me a good writer, you know? It's not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign."

These candid remarks were taped at a debate-prep session at a law firm in Washington. The tape of Obama's back-and-forth with his advisers, provided to NEWSWEEK by an attendee, is a remarkably frank and revealing record of what the candidate was really thinking when he took the stage with his opponents.

On the tape, after Obama's rueful remark about the mixed blessings of his detached nature, there is cross talk and laughter, and then Axelrod cracks, "You can save that for your next memoir."

Obama continues: "When you have to be cheerful all the time and try to perform and act like [the tape is unclear; Obama appears to be poking fun at his opponents], I'm sure that some of it has to do with nerves or anxiety and not having done this before, I'm sure. And in my own head, you know, there's—I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. When you're going into something thinking, 'This is not my best …' I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' Instead of being appropriately [the tape is garbled]. So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f–––ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."

Obama was refreshingly honest with his aides, who chuckled over his remarks, but he was no Happy Warrior, and his detachment deflated his staff a bit. His campaign headquarters at 233 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago was high tech—lots of flat screens, more cell phones than regular phones—but earnest and nerdy. (A large hand-lettered sign stuck on the bathroom door instructed staffers to BRING BACK HOTEL SHAMPOOS AND SOAPS FOR DONATIONS TO SHELTERS.) A former Clinton staffer, accustomed to the earthy chaos of the Clinton war room (where, in legend at least, James Carville refused to change his lucky underwear), found it a little soulless. A newcomer to the campaign in September 2007, Betsy Myers—sister of former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers and a former Clinton White House staffer herself—hoped that Obama, in town overnight, might come to headquarters to cheer the staff. "But he didn't," she recalled later that fall. "He went to the gym instead." She paused as she recollected. "He hasn't been in the headquarters in months. A lot of these people are young and really look up to him, and it would have meant a lot to them if he'd stopped by." Another pause. "Nobody would have had to tell Bill Clinton to stop by if he was just a couple of blocks away. You would have had to physically drag Bill Clinton out of there."

The low point, Obama later recalled, came in September and October, when he trailed Clinton in the national polls by 20 to 30 points. His staff was complaining that he lacked "energy." But Obama wasn't that worried. He trusted his chief strategist, Axelrod, a former newspaperman with a melancholy look, an ironic air and a clear sense of what to do: make the campaign about change, and make Hillary Clinton out to be more of the same. A veteran of numerous state, local and national campaigns, Axelrod, at 52, was an idealist who liked to read old Bobby Kennedy speeches in his spare time but who was well versed in gut-cutting politics, Chicago style. Axelrod had suffered in his own life (his father committed suicide; one of his children was severely epileptic), and he kept a certain detachment. He was courtly and gentle, not at all the more typical hit-'em-again macho political consultant. He liked Obama in part because he could see that the candidate was unusually intelligent (especially, in his experience, for a politician coming out of the Illinois Statehouse), and because Obama seemed uninterested in and unimpressed by the mindless tit-for-tat of modern political campaigning. Axelrod was, like Obama, self-contained. He did not use an office at the gleaming high-tech headquarters but rather worked from his own low-key office and spent much of his time at a greasy deli called Manny's. Axelrod was a seer and a good listener, though not much for glad-handing and schmoozing.

To run things, Obama counted on David Plouffe, who was calm and a little nerdy himself. (Staffers joked that Plouffe's range of emotions ran all the way "from A to B.") Plouffe reflected the cool self-discipline of the candidate, and the two of them set the ethos of the campaign, which staffers dubbed "No-Drama Obama." Plouffe also had a clear and simple plan: concentrate on four early states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Clinton might be ahead in the national polls, but Obama knew he was raising record amounts of money—and, even better, in small amounts over the Internet, which meant that donors would not get tapped out. The campaign had 37 field offices in Iowa. No other campaign was so well organized.

Obama had laid out his vision for the campaign on the day after the midterm elections in 2006. The Democrats had routed the Republicans in Congress, and Obama sensed that the moment had arrived for an unconventional campaign that would take advantage of voter disenchantment—not just with the Republicans but with politics as usual. He had met in a small, dimly lit conference room in the office of Axelrod's consulting firm in Chicago with his inner circle: Michelle, his friend Marty Nesbitt, Axelrod, Plouffe, Robert Gibbs (who would handle communications), Steve Hildebrand (Plouffe's deputy), Alyssa Mastromonaco (director of the advance teams) and Pete Rouse, Tom Daschle's former chief of staff and a Capitol Hill insider. Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama family friend who was closely connected with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, joked about the decidedly unfancy setting. There were cookies, bottled water and canned soda—"whatever kind of pop you wanted," Jarrett said with a laugh as she later recounted the scene. "This is David Axelrod."

Obama spoke first. "I just remember him saying that if he were to do this, he wanted to make sure that it was a different kind of campaign and consistent with his philosophy of ground up rather than top down," Jarrett recalled. As a community organizer in Chicago in the '80s, Obama had been influenced by the teachings of Saul Alinsky, a radical with a realist bent who once wrote, "Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people." Obama knew he had a knack for finding non-threatening ways to make people accept change—to begin with, his own skin color. As Jarrett recalled, Obama insisted that he wanted to run a grass-roots campaign because he had seen it work as a community organizer, and he wanted to try to take the model and go national. Rouse, the old Washington hand, had a slightly different recollection of the meeting: the grass-roots model wasn't really a choice. It was a necessity. Hillary Clinton would have the establishment behind her, which meant that she'd have the early money (or so it was thought), the endorsements and a national organization.

For the meeting, Rouse had prepared a list of six questions. The third question was: "Are you intimidated about being the leader of the free world?" Obama had a ready answer: "Who wouldn't be?"

Thus, in a dim room in Chicago, was launched one of the most formidable political operations ever seen in American politics. But its potential was not obvious at the time. Obama fretted about his showing in the early going, particularly his shaky debating skills. "It's worse than I thought," he told Axelrod after he watched the videotape of one dismal performance in the summer of 2007. But he felt he was learning on the stump—at his own pace and in his own way. Obama was a relentless self-improver: "I'm my own worst critic," he told NEWSWEEK, but he was also a loner who needed to step back away from the others, to look more closely at himself. He wasn't chilly, exactly, but for a politician he was astonishingly inner-directed, and that could make him seem remote. He felt a little overprotected by his handlers, who would signal from the back of the hall that he had time for only one or two questions from the public—and none from the press. Obama began ignoring the signal from Gibbs, his communications director, instead taking three or four more questions from the crowd, though he still kept his distance from reporters. (Curiously, though Obama drove his rivals mad by receiving reams of mostly friendly publicity, he was not well liked by reporters, many of whom found him chilly and guarded. He was more popular with editors, who regarded him as a phenomenon.)

On the stump, he decided to experiment, to try loosening up a little. Speaking to an African-American crowd in Manning, S.C., on Nov. 2, he began to riff, using the call-and-response cadence of a black preacher. Addressing the doubts among some blacks about whether the country was ready to vote for an African-American, Obama said, "I just want y'all to be clear … I would not be running if I weren't confident I was gon' win!"

There was a rousing chorus of "Amen!" and cheers from the audience.

"I'm not interested in second place!" More cheers, and a big grin from Obama … he could feel the crowd's energy.

"I'm not running to be vice president! I'm not running to be secretary of something-or-other!" They were like old friends now, Obama and the crowd … this was fun!

But then Obama got carried away with himself and violated a cardinal rule of braggadocio in the black community: don't get too high and mighty.

"I was doing just fine before I started running for president! I'm a United States senator already!"

In an instant the crowd went quiet—and that should have been his cue … but Obama plowed ahead.

"Everybody already knows me!" A lone shout went up from the audience.

"I already sold a lot of books! I don't need to run for president to get on television or on the radio …"


"I've been on Oprah!" That seemed to get the crowd back, but Obama knew he had almost lost them altogether.

Obama studied himself and learned, just in time. The annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 10 was a crucial beauty pageant before the real contest, the caucuses on Jan. 3. Obama's Iowa organization made sure to pack the hall and drown out the supporters of all the other candidates. Because the candidates were not allowed to use teleprompters, Obama spent hours memorizing the words and perfecting his delivery. The speech was a good one, ripping George W. Bush and taking down Hillary (a little more subtly), and it built into a crescendo as Obama told the story of how, on a miserable morning when he faced a small, bored crowd in Greenwood, S.C., a single black woman in the audience had revived his flagging spirit by getting the crowd to chant, responsively, "Fired up!" "Ready to go!" Slipping from an easy, bemused tone to a near shout, Obama egged on the overflow crowd at the J-J dinner. "So I've got one thing to ask you. Are you FIRED UP? Are you READY TO GO? FIRED UP! READY TO GO!" The Washington Post's David Broder, the Yoda of political reporters, was watching and understood that Obama had found the Force. The speech became Obama's standard stump speech, and in the weeks ahead it never failed him. Broder described the effect of Obama's thumping windup: "And then, as the shouting became almost too loud to hear, he adds the five words that capsulize the whole message and sends the voters scrambling back into their winter coats and streaming out the door: 'Let's go change the world.' And he sounds as if he means it. In every audience I have seen," Broder reported on Dec. 23, a week and a half before the Iowa caucuses, "there is a jolt of pure electrical energy at those closing words. Tears stain some cheeks—and some people look a little thunderstruck."

For someone who had reportedly coveted the White House for years, who had long plotted with her husband to take back the presidency and restore the Clinton imperium, Hillary Clinton was slow to actually declare for the nomination. "We utterly squandered '05 and '06 in terms of her running for president," recalled one Clinton adviser. For someone who was known as a fierce battler, who was in fact courageous in adversity, she was oddly detached and conflict-averse as a boss. There were moments when it seemed she wasn't all that eager to give up her solid, useful life as a U.S. senator to pursue the Clinton destiny, at least as it was understood by the press and by the former president.

On a cold midmorning in January 2007, Hillary sat in the sunny living room of her house on Whitehaven Street in Washington, a well-to-do enclave off Embassy Row where she lived with her mother and, on occasion, her husband. She was finishing a last round of policy prep with her aides before getting on a plane to Iowa for her first big campaign swing. In a moment of quiet, she looked around the living room and said, to no one in particular, "I so love this house. Why am I doing this?"

Her policy director, Neera Tanden, and her advertising director, Mandy Grunwald, laughed, a little too lightheartedly. Clinton went on. "I'm so comfortable here. Why am I doing this?"

Tanden spoke up. "The White House isn't so bad," she said.

"I've been there," said Clinton.

For most of her political life, and for most of the campaign to come, Hillary Clinton was a stubborn fighter. She was a very able lawmaker; indeed, she was more dutiful and effective in the Senate than Obama was. But she was, to a degree not generally recognized at the time, not a strong manager. She was unable to control her own staffers, who from the very first skirmish with the Obama forces showed questionable judgment and mutual distrust.

In late February 2007, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times ran a much-noticed column, an interview with David Geffen, a big-time Hollywood producer. Hollywood money had always flowed into the Clinton coffers, but Geffen had just given a big fundraiser for Obama. Geffen explained why, using code that anyone could understand: "I don't think that anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person."

To say that Geffen's remark struck a raw nerve in the Clinton camp is a mild understatement. "We're just praying that Bill behaves," a Clinton staffer told a NEWSWEEK reporter that winter. She clasped her hands and bowed several times. Other staffers dryly referred to the private plane owned by supermarket magnate and playboy Ron Burkle, Bill Clinton's friend and traveling buddy, as "Air F––– One."

Geffen's remarks to Dowd, which were sure to ricochet around the political world by lunch, presented the Clinton war room with its first real challenge. Howard Wolfson, Hillary's bulldog spokesman, had read the column by 5 a.m., called her by 6 and summoned a crisis conference call by 7. By the time most Americans were arriving at work, Wolfson had put out a statement calling on Obama to denounce Geffen's statement and return the money from the fundraiser. The Obama war room responded with a not-so-subtle crack about selling the Lincoln Bedroom in the Bill Clinton administration. The Clintonites were delighted—as they saw it, the Obama team had taken the bait and fallen into a trap. Wolfson issued a press release: "Obama Embraces Slash & Burn Politics: by refusing to disavow the personal attacks …" It was an all-hands-on-deck moment, with every staffer in the Clinton war room on the phone with a reporter, pushing the story.

It was exciting. Combat! First blood! But lost in all the frantic Googling, Nexising and IMing was the larger picture. By overreacting, the Clinton campaigners drew attention to their own misgivings about the former president's behavior and to Obama's status as a legitimate contender who could raise big bucks from the Clintons' own base. Obama himself floated coolly over the whole flap, telling a reporter, "It's not clear to me why I should be apologizing for someone else's remarks. My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons, but that doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."

Before too long, reality set in among Clinton's staffers, and the finger-pointing began. According to other staffers, Mark Penn, Hillary's prickly chief strategist, had been all for the assault on Obama, but when he saw it backfiring he told Bill Clinton that he had not been involved, that it was Wolfson's fault. With Hillary Clinton, he suggested that perhaps Wolfson, who was cast in the press as a hit man out of "The Sopranos," wasn't up to the job of chief spokesman in a presidential campaign. For good measure he took a swipe at Grunwald, officially the campaign's chief ad person, though Penn regarded himself as the campaign's true image maker. "You have to fix this," said Hillary. Penn nodded. "We have to make him think that he's in charge of communications," Penn said conspiratorially, "the same way we made Mandy think she's in charge of ads."

The story, while byzantine, was a perfect microcosm of the campaign to come: a Hollywood mogul uses a famous columnist to revive old rumors of the candidate's husband's infidelities; the candidate's campaign panics and ends up aggravating the problem; the campaign's chief strategist washes his hands of the whole situation, and when the candidate tells him to "fix it" he sees an opportunity to undermine two other top staffers—without fixing anything.

Crisis, chaos, deceit and subterfuge. After eight years in the Clinton White House, it was all familiar to Hillary—a world she had bravely struggled in but not against; it was the only world she really knew.

The Clinton campaign blew through cash: fancy hotels like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons everywhere; thousands of dollars on flowers and valet parking; and one memorable $100,000 grocery bill at a Des Moines supermarket. Hillary never spent a night in a motel in rural Iowa if she could possibly avoid it. She preferred to overnight in the Presidential Suite in the Des Moines Embassy Suites and to fly alone in private jets, without the press or staff. Her campaign manager was her former White House scheduler, Patti Solis Doyle, who had coined the term "Hillaryland" to describe the circle of women loyalists around Hillary and referred to Bill's circle of advisers as "the White Boys." Chief White Boy was Penn, who, during the dark days of 1994, had come into the Clinton White House with Dick Morris, the secretive and now shunned former adviser. Penn and Solis Doyle barely spoke. More important, Penn, who was in charge of polling data, shared his findings with Bill Clinton—but often kept them from Solis Doyle and the other advisers (who naturally assumed he was hiding any results that didn't jibe with his strategy).

Penn especially did not get along with Harold Ickes, a top aide from the White House days. The two men were a volatile match. Penn's social skills were limited; Paul Begala, another old Clinton hand, privately joked that Penn had Asperger's syndrome, because he was narrowly smart and generally clueless. Ickes was a labor lawyer with a spectacularly foul mouth, even by campaign standards. By midwinter, an account of Penn and Ickes screaming the F word at each other would make it into The Washington Post. Campaign manager Solis Doyle seemed overwhelmed by it all. Her door was often closed, and she sometimes did not return phone calls. The New Republic reported campaign gossip that she was inside her office watching soap operas. (Actually, she was answering e-mails until the early hours of the morning.)

The campaign seemed to lurch from message to message, in part because Penn wanted to go negative against Obama, and Solis Doyle, Wolfson, Grunwald and Ickes wanted to "humanize" Hillary. "She's not going to go around talking about feelings," Penn would sneer. Solis Doyle, who liked nicknames and acronyms, dubbed Penn "the Chairman of the Kill Him Caucus." Hillary was unable to choose between the two approaches. Ads attacking Obama or softening Clinton were made—and then put on the shelf while her advisers bickered. Hillary's lame first campaign slogan, designed by default and by committee, was "I'm in It to Win." ("No s–––," Ickes muttered to a NEWSWEEK reporter.)

Clinton liked to describe her campaign as a "team of rivals," borrowing from the title Doris Kearns Goodwin used for her book on Abraham Lincoln and his strong-willed and disputatious, but ultimately triumphant, Civil War cabinet. A top adviser may have more accurately captured the spirit of the Clinton campaign when remarking to a NEWSWEEK reporter, "It was a terribly unpleasant place to work. You had seven people on a morning call, all of whom had tried to get someone else on the call fired, or knew someone on the call tried to get them fired. It was not a recipe for cohesive team building."

Throughout the fall of 2007, Clinton was hailed as "inevitable" by a good portion of the press corps. Even so, her campaign was suffused with a sense of grievance—that Obama was getting a free ride and that reporters were itching for her or her husband to trip up. At a debate in Philadelphia in late October, Hillary, looking sick and exhausted, stumbled on a question after parrying with her opponents for more than an hour. Asked whether she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, she answered yes, no, maybe. Sen. Chris Dodd, then John Edwards, pounced. The Clinton campaign posted a video it dubbed "Piling On," a rapid-fire montage of the men onstage attacking Hillary in the debate. The press accused her of playing the victim, which just heightened the sense among the Clintonites that she was a victim—of a double standard that judged women more harshly than men, especially one particular black man. The feeling deepened a couple of weeks later when Obama, at another debate, botched the same question on immigration and went unscathed by the press.

The Clintonites were not entirely wrong about the press. At the final Iowa debate, on Dec. 13, Obama was asked how he could really present himself as the candidate of change when so many of his advisers had worked in the Clinton administration. As he professorially cleared his throat ("Well, you know, I …"), a sharp laugh erupted from Hillary, who exclaimed, "I want to hear this!" Obama allowed himself a bit of drollery, remarking, "Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well." Reporters watching in the press area began debating whether Clinton's laugh was really a "cackle" and cracking jokes about "Cruella de Hil."

Obama was starting to feel confident, even cocky again. During December, he took Oprah Winfrey with him as a kind of warmup act, and crowds by the tens of thousands began turning out in the early-winter chill. Winfrey spoke of reading "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," how the enslaved Pittman was searching for "the One," the child savior who would lead her people to freedom. "Well, I believe, in '08, I have found the answer to Ms. Pittman's question. I have fo-o-u-und the answer! It is the same question that our nation is asking: 'Are you the one? Are you the one?' I'm here to tell y'all, he is the one. He is the one … Barack Obama!!" Waiting backstage, Obama peered out at the crowd of 30,000 and did a little dance with Michelle. At a huge rally with Winfrey in South Carolina, Obama cast off his habitual reserve and shouted so loud his voice cracked. "I just want to know, ARE YOU FIRED UP? READY TO GO! F-I-I-RED UP? READY TO GO!! F-I-I-RED UP READY TO GO FIRED UP READY TO GO FIRED UP READY TO GO …" again and again, until Stevie Wonder came blasting from the speakers: "Here I am-m-m-m ba-a-a-by, signed, sealed, delivered, I-I-I'm yo-o-o-u-u-urs!!!"

Obama was not given to shows of emotion. But at the last debate he was asked an innocuous question about his New Year's resolution, and he launched into standard-issue boilerplate about being "a better father, better husband. And I want to remind myself constantly that this is not about me, ah, what I'm doing today. It's an enormous strain on the family … a-a-a-nd …" He paused, and for the briefest moment there was a hitch in his voice before he continued, "Y'know, yesterday I went and bought a Christmas tree with my girls, and we had about two hours before I had to fly back to Washington to vote …" Valerie Jarrett, the family friend who had become one of his closest political advisers, thought Obama was going to tear up. She had seen it before, at a book party for "The Audacity of Hope" in 2006, when Obama had started to say he was sorry to have been away from his family so much during his campaign for the Senate, and began crying so hard he couldn't go on. Obama was remarkably self-contained, but he was also palpably emotionally attached to his family. Jarrett knew that he had not been able to keep his promises to Michelle about getting home to see her and the kids, and that the strain was starting to show.

At 6 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2008, the night of the Iowa caucuses, Obama, Jarrett and Plouffe drove to one of the canvass locations, a large high school in Des Moines. The parking lot was packed. The three of them just looked at each other, Jarrett recalled. The crowd, mostly white, many wearing Obama T shirts, swirled around them. Obama thanked a young Asian boy for coming out to vote—it was his first election—and when Obama turned away, Jarrett noticed that there were tears streaming down the boy's face. Obama seemed reasonably relaxed to Jarrett. He went off to dinner, but his staff didn't pay him much attention. Their heads were all lowered as they peered at their BlackBerrys, looking for early voting returns.

Over at Clinton headquarters, the preternaturally optimistic Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton fundraiser, thought his candidate would win by 10 points. Nearly everyone had told him so, though Penn, holding close the polls, had hedged with a lot of caveats and footnotes. At 8 p.m. McAuliffe stood in the middle of the campaign boiler room and boomed, "How are we doing?" Wolfson, the spokesman, walked by on the way to get a piece of pizza. "We're getting killed," said Wolfson. "We're going to get killed. We're going to get our asses kicked."

The Clintonites had vastly underestimated the turnout. Penn had originally figured 90,000 Iowans would turn out on a snowy night (the pollster/strategist later boosted the number to 150,000). On the night of Jan. 3, 250,000 came to stand around in crowded gyms and be herded into preference groups for one candidate or another. Some 22 percent were under the age of 25, an unusually high percentage from an age group not known for voting. Hillary won just 5 percent of their votes.

An aide approached McAuliffe and said the president wanted to see him. McAuliffe was escorted to the Clintons' suite by a Secret Service agent. He found Bill Clinton watching a bowl game on TV. The ex-president seemed perfectly relaxed and jovial. "Sir," said McAuliffe, "have you heard the news?" "What news?" Clinton asked. "We're going to get killed," said McAuliffe.

"What!" exclaimed Clinton, who then called out in a loud voice, "Hillary!"

Hillary emerged from the bedroom. McAuliffe recalled: "Nobody had told them. He thought he was going to have a beer with me and watch the game." Suddenly there was pandemonium. Grunwald and Penn appeared, then Solis Doyle and Wolfson and Neera Tanden, the policy director. "How did this happen?" the Clintons demanded. A squabble broke out when Grunwald showed some negative ads on her laptop that had been made—but never aired. Penn insisted that the argument—that Obama had overstated his antiwar credentials—had tested well; it was the ads themselves, made by Grunwald, that were no good. Now President Clinton wanted to run the ads. "Let's go," he said, giving a thumbs-up. But Hillary asked, "Where are we going? It's just throwing stuff against the wall."

The plane flight back to Manchester after midnight was grim. "Mark, we lost women," McAuliffe said. Penn just shrugged his shoulders. At a senior staff teleconference in the morning, Hillary, who had slept no more than an hour, asked for ideas. There was an awkward silence. So she held for a bit, then asked for input. Again, silence. "Well, I want to thank you all," she said. "It's been really great talking to myself." Then she hung up.

Less than 24 hours before the New Hampshire polls opened on Tuesday, Jan. 8, she was sitting in a strip-mall coffee shop in Manchester, talking to about 16 voters, when someone asked, "My question is very personal: How do you do it? How do you do … how do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?" Hillary answered, "It's not easy, it's not easy, and I couldn't do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do. I have so many opportunities from this country …" Her voice cracked. "I just don't want to see us fall backwards. You know, this is very personal for me …"

In the bus afterward, she ranted at one of her aides, "We never should have gone to Iowa. I knew it. I knew we never should have gone." Now she fretted that she had doomed herself with a "Muskie moment," referring to the late Ed Muskie, the once front-running senator from Maine who had doomed his 1972 presidential campaign by welling up at a campaign event in New Hampshire. Penn had warned her not to show vulnerability. "I've been so wound up in doing the commander-in-chief thing," she said. Later that afternoon she stopped in at her Manchester campaign headquarters, where staffers were buzzing about how she had become choked up at a coffee shop. It played well, they assured her. Hillary thanked them. "Don't expect that too often," she said dryly.

Obama's strategist David Axelrod was on the campaign bus when word came that Clinton had teared up, experienced some sort of breakdown. Some of Obama's aides began chortling about an Ed Muskie moment, but when Axelrod went online and saw a video feed of the incident, he had an uneasy feeling. "Everybody said, 'Oh, Ed Muskie and all that'," Axelrod later recalled. "But it didn't come across that way to me at all. It came across as a moment of humanity from someone who badly needed to show one."

Obama was making a triumphal march across the state. The press (once so sure of Clinton's "inevitability") sensed History in the Making, the first black presidential nominee. Several journalists brought their families to Obama campaign rallies to bear witness. But on Jan. 5, at the last debate, Hillary was asked why voters felt that Obama was a more likable figure. "Well, that hurts my feelings," she responded. "But I'll try to go on. He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad." Obama, barely looking up while he took a note, remarked, "You're likable enough, Hillary."

On Election Day, undecided women voters broke almost entirely Clinton's way. That night, in the press-filing center, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza was putting the finishing touches on a 10,000-word story on Rocket Ship Obama. "I think I'm f–––ed," he said. "I have to write a completely different story."

Obama was sitting in a coach's office in a high-school gym when the results came in. Axelrod knocked on the door, and Obama stepped outside into the hallway. "It doesn't look like it's going to happen," said Axelrod. Obama closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. He inhaled, exhaled. "This is going to take a while, isn't it?" he asked.

"I think so," Axelrod answered.

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