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Sweet column: A look at Obama winning Iowa strategy

DES MOINES, Iowa — A year ago Barack Obama was winding up his second year in the U.S. Senate. Now, his big win Thursday night in Iowa catapulted him to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president with chief rival Hillary Rodham Clinton coming in third.

How did Obama win in Iowa? “The basic premise of the campaign was clear from the beginning,” said chief strategist David Axelrod.

Several decisions that the campaign made early on made the difference. Also key were a stunning, record turnout — by an enormous “idealistic” youth vote — as well as a lot of Obama shoe leather.

“At the end of the day, he was distinctive,” said Axelrod. “You can’t be a kind of Rosie Ruiz [the discredited marathon runner] in the presidential race. You got to run every mile and I think you get tested.”

Obama apparently wasn’t hurt by lackluster debate performances. He constructed a stump speech that was a strong “closing argument” — buttressed by some 22 commercials saturating Iowa television produced by Axelrod’s team.

Hope, Obama’s signature message, led campaign manager David Plouffe and Axelrod to design an aspirational campaign, rather than one oriented to issuing white papers and 10-point plans.

While Obama’s Internet strategies and Oprah Winfrey appearances got a lot of attention, organization built on that was critical. Obama also sharpened his message in mid-October against Clinton, unleashing her to do the same.

Organize, organize, organize was the word for Iowa’s 99 counties. Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Hildebrand, an architect of the plan, was one of the first people brought on board the Obama presidential drive in the fall of 2006, before anything was official. Hildebrand started mapping an Iowa organization strategy in December 2006, months before Obama declared last February.

Independents turned out big, which bodes well for Obama next week in New Hampshire where the top three Democrats face off again Tuesday. Axelrod said Obama’s coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans attended caucuses on Thursday night.

“This kind of coalition put together here can be reassembled,” Axelrod said.

Race did not play against him. Obama, if nominated, will be the first African-American Democratic nominee. Hildebrand said Obama commanded an overwhelming number of delegates in precincts with high numbers of African-American voters.

Turnout of historic proportions helped Obama overwhelm Clinton and the No. 2 vote-getting Democrat, John Edwards. With 99 percent of the precincts in, the Iowa State Democratic Party pegged turnout at 236,000, compared with 124,000 in 2004.

Obama could not have been competitive without a commanding fund-raising operation. And he had one — headed by Chicago’s Penny Pritzker and run by finance chief Julianna Smoot, who put together an elite group of bundlers at the high end while Plouffe and company worked the Internet for hundreds of thousands of low-end givers.