What next for David Axelrod?

(photo by Lynn Sweet)

SARASOTA, Fla. — “I am a kibitzer with a broad portfolio,” David Axelrod is saying. He’s kidding, of course, as he underplays his pivotal role in Barack Obama’s drive for the White House.

Axelrod has been a part of other White House bids — Paul Simon in 1988, John Edwards in 2004, even having influence on a “West Wing” presidential contest when writer/producer Eli Attie turned to Axelrod for advice in shaping the Obama-esque Matt Santos character played by Jimmy Smits, elected as the nation’s first minority commander in chief.

Axelrod is on his own journey, which has taken him from his native New York to the University of Chicago; becoming a Chicago Tribune political writer, founder of a powerhouse consulting firm, and now, at the zenith of his career, chief strategist for Obama’s presidential campaign — and wondering what comes next.

“I think to some degree, chief strategist kind of does not give him enough credit,” said Robert Gibbs, a campaign senior adviser brought into the Obama orbit by Axelrod and David Plouffe to work on Obama’s 2004 general-election U.S. Senate race. Plouffe, Axelrod’s partner at AKP&D Message and Media with headquarters in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, is the manager of Obama’s presidential campaign.

Title aside, Axelrod “is involved in virtually almost every aspect of the campaign,” said Gibbs, “integrating message with policy and speechwriting. And, obviously, he is as close to Barack as anybody on this race because they have such a long relationship.”

Democratic activist Bettylu Saltzman, an Axelrod friend, spotted Obama early on as a comer — her backing has been a crucial element in Obama’s quick rise — and urged Axelrod to get to know him. “Bettylu called me in ’92,” Axelrod said, and told him she “just met this extraordinary guy, and you need to meet him.”

While Obama and Axelrod went on to become friends, he wasn’t involved in Obama’s ill-fated House race in 2000.

Axelrod’s signing on with Obama for his 2004 race for a Senate seat from Illinois was critical in making Obama, then still a little-known state senator, an instantly credible candidate in the crowded Democratic primary field.

Since the beginning of Obama’s White House run, Axelrod’s principal role has been to make sure the message of the campaign reflects Obama’s worldview, from TV spots to the spin room after debates.

“The greatest gift that I have had is to be able to assemble the team of my dream,” he said. “It was a little bit like ‘Ocean’s 11.’ I got to go around to the best of everybody and ask: ‘Are you in, or are you out?'”

Axelrod and I are chatting at an Obama rally in Florida as every trend shows Obama positioned to become president-elect Tuesday. There is speculation about whether Axelrod will join the administration.

“I think there is sort of a roundness between having started my political career with Paul and maybe finishing it with Barack,” said Axelrod, who left the Tribune to work on Paul Simon’s Senate campaign.

“Finishing?” I asked.

“Of this phase of my career.”

“Meaning what?”

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Axelrod says. “There is nothing I will ever do that will even approach the thrill that this has been.”

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