Almost from the beginning, Hillary Rodham Clinton's superior name recognition and her sway with state party organizations convinced Barack Obama's brain trust that a junior senator from Illinois was not going to be able to challenge the Clinton political machine head-on.
The insurgent strategy the group devised instead was to virtually cede the most important battlegrounds of the Democratic nomination fight to Clinton, using precision targeting to minimize her delegate hauls, while going all out to crush her in states where Democratic candidates rarely ventured.
The result may have lacked the glamour of a sweep, but last night, with the delegates he picked up in Montana and South Dakota and a flood of superdelegate endorsements, Obama sealed one of the biggest upsets in U.S. political history and became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to wrest his party's nomination from the candidate of the party establishment. The surprise was how well his strategy held up -- and how little resistance it met.
"We kept waiting for the Clinton people to send people into the caucus states," marveled Jon Carson, one of Obama's top ground-game strategists.
"It's the big mystery of the campaign," said campaign manager David Plouffe, "because every delegate counts."
The Obama strategy had its limits. Like a basketball team entering halftime with a 30-point lead, the campaign played a less-than-inspired second half. Obama managed only a split yesterday, losing South Dakota and winning Montana, meaning that he lost nine of the last 14 primaries. Before last night, that erratic finish translated into losing 458 of the 867 pledged delegates available since Wisconsin voted on Feb. 19, and 53.2 percent of the popular vote.
His inability to capture battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania may be a portent of what could await him in November against Sen. John McCain. But victory did come -- not in a rush of momentum but in what his own staff calls a "slog."
"Here's a person who nobody had heard of. The nomination was Hillary Clinton's. She was being coronated 16 months ago," said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer, who helped turn Indiana into a narrow defeat that worked to Obama's favor. "He's gone through a long, gut-wrenching, difficult process and emerged as a very talented, tough candidate."
When Obama began his campaign in early 2007, the road ahead was a fairly conventional one, not unlike the one followed by Gary Hart or Bill Bradley before him: Battle for the first three or four states and momentum steamrolls the opponent.
"We had to disrupt her early," Plouffe said of Clinton.
Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 loomed like a mountain. Obama's campaign had budgeted a mere $5 million for that day, and the Democrats had 22 states at stake, including prohibitively expensive prizes such as California and New York.
But by last summer, after Obama's wildly successful book tour led to an even more wildly successful fundraising blitz, members of his inner circle began thinking differently. They began building a new strategy based on message, money and, above all, organization.
The message -- of unity and hope -- did not come out of nowhere. David Axelrod, a Chicago campaign consultant, long ago hatched the idea that Democrats' campaigns should revolve more around personality than policy.
The money turned a seat-of-the-pants enterprise into a vast operation that occupied the 11th floor of a skyscraper on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, where 20-somethings tossed footballs, computer whizzes designed interactive Web sites and older volunteers filled an entire call center, not to place calls but to receive them from Democrats who were eager to help.
Then, while the public battle played out in Iowa's farm towns, cities and at its colleges, the senator's staff huddled in Chicago to map out a strategy that would counter Clinton's strength, by blunting her advantage in states such as California, Ohio and Pennsylvania, then beating her where she wasn't.
Senior advisers, including Plouffe and delegate specialist Jeffrey Berman, diced the country into 435 congressional districts, the basis for pledged-delegate allocations. They examined each district under different scenarios -- for instance, before and after former senator John Edwards left the race. And they identified quirks that Obama could exploit -- such as the fact that in districts that awarded an even number of delegates, the take was generally split evenly, if the winning margin was kept reasonable.
The campaign leadership had wanted no distractions before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, so the planning in Chicago was done in secret. But on the night of Jan. 4, as Obama's Iowa staff staggered into his Des Moines campaign headquarters, still ragged from celebrating the senator's improbable victory there, field director Paul Tewes took it public.