The Best of NEWSWEEK's Top-Secret Election Project, Vols. II, III and IV

You can read my favorite tidbits from Chapter One here.

Now for the highlights from Chapters Two, Three and Four:

Bill's Bile: 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?"

Obama's Appetites--or Lack Thereof: 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.

The 'Psychotic Fireman': 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.

The Slogans I Know: 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.

In My Day: 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.

The Wright Stuff: 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.) 

Nerd Factor: 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), [Obama] 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.

Subversive Streak: [McCain's] aides had trouble coaching him because the very act of telling him what to do could incite a rebellion. When distracted or restless, a not infrequent occasion, McCain could be tempted to play the high-school prankster. Once at a press availability in Kentucky he spotted a large woman, who was wearing a black T shirt embroidered with two bedazzling martini glasses, standing behind the photographers. He asked her to stand by him at the podium, where she might have a better view. "Is this OK?" he asked. "This is fi-ine!" the lady replied, but as she saw a sea of cameras and smirking reporters, she looked stunned and slightly embarrassed. She started to sidle away, and McCain asked, with mock forlornness, "You leaving me?"

Schmidt Agonistes: Schmidt resented being called a disciple of Rove by the press. He did not regard himself as a fearmonger or a practitioner of the dark arts, and indeed he had a sweet, playful side. He told funny stories about being scared of snakes at his California home, and he desperately missed his wife, son and daughter, with whom he had memorized the songs from the Disney fairy-tale movie "Enchanted." After he had been portrayed as a calculating political-machine man in the 2004 NEWSWEEK special election issue, a crestfallen Schmidt asked his friend Nicolle Wallace, Bush's communications director, "Is that really how people see me? The big, bald, mean guy?" Schmidt could be mock-tough. "I'm OK with a reign of terror starting now," he sternly told Salter when the campaign's logistical incompetence was becoming all too apparent to the press late in the spring of 2008. Then he turned to a NEWSWEEK reporter and choked up with laughter. But he could also be severe and grimly focused. Whenever McCain had a rough day in the press, or Schmidt was running on a few hours' sleep after a late night at the bar with Salter, he would declare, throughout the day, "Fun Steve is dead." 

Losing His 'Base': McCain was nonplused about the end of his honeymoon with the press... McCain would want to head back to the reporters' section of the plane, and Davis would pull him back. "No, no, no, I want them around me," McCain would say, referring to the reporters. "No, no, no, they're screwing you," Davis would retort. At McCain's insistence, his new campaign plane this past summer had been fitted with a large bench-style couch, to re-create the space on the Straight Talk Express bus, where the candidate had spent hours jawing on the record with reporters, half a dozen or so at a time. But reporters were never asked to sit there. McCain did not look happy about being kept on a tight leash, as least as far as reporters could tell from a distance. ("It was like withdrawal," Lindsey Graham conceded to a NEWSWEEK reporter.) Around reporters, McCain sometimes looked like a sheepish teenager who has been told by his parents that he has to stop seeing a girl. At a stop in Wisconsin, reporters watched while McCain drank coffee with a delegate. The candidate looked up and made eye contact with the reporters. "How are you guys today?" he said, smiling. Before anyone could say anything, campaign aides swooped in and began ushering reporters from the room. When one reporter tried to talk to McCain, he looked up expectantly and seemed about to say something. "Senator, can I …" the reporter began. An advance man stepped in. "Thank you, let's go," the staffer said.

Cash Flow: The power of the Obama operation could be measured: doubling the turnout at the Iowa caucuses, raising twice as much money as any other candidate in history, organizing volunteers by the millions. (In Florida alone: 65 offices, paid staff of 350, active e-mail list of 650,000, 25,000 volunteers on any weekend day.) The ultimate test would come Nov. 4. In the meantime, there were indications of a great storm brewing. At the end of August, as Hurricane Gustav threatened the coast of Texas, the Obama campaign called the Red Cross to say it would be routing donations to it via the Red Cross home page. Get your servers readyour guys can be pretty nuts, Team Obama said. Sure, sure, whatever, the Red Cross responded. We've been through 9/11, Katrina, we can handle it. The surge of Obama dollars crashed the Red Cross Web site in less than 15 minutes.


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