IT'S a bit of wisdom that Barack Obama has cited himself, but it's also a favorite line of his chief strategist, David Axelrod, who in turn probably got it from "The Untouchables": you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. A brooding former Chicago Tribune reporter, Axelrod has long been drawn to candidates who deliver high-minded messages of change and reform. But he doesn't shy from using the campaign equivalent of a shiv or a pistol.
Four months ago—when the presidential race was still in its polite phase—Axelrod conducted war games. Campaign consultants drafted a "vulnerability study," and produced a series of mock attack ads against Obama, to get a sense of what might be coming. They tested the mock commercials in focus groups. Later they developed a series of real ads to defend Obama and take on John McCain, including several that paint the Arizona senator as being "out of touch" on the economy. When the McCain campaign started blasting Obama on his relationship with Bill Ayers, a 1960s radical with the Weather Underground who later became a college professor, Axelrod's team had its own attack ad ready to go: a 13-minute Web video (complete with sinister whispers and menacing shadows) about McCain's relationship with Charles Keating, the disgraced 1980s financier.
People who know Axelrod were not surprised by that level of preparation. He's got a long history of hard-hitting campaigns. Jill Long Thompson, who won an Indiana congressional seat in 1989 with help from Axelrod, says he taught her the value of going negative. "I was raised in a United Methodist family, where you're told if you don't have something positive to say, you don't say it," says Thompson. "His take is that you have to say it, point out those not-nice things when it's the truth." One of the more effective ads Axelrod produced in that campaign portrayed the GOP candidate, Dan Heath, as a cardsharp not to be trusted by voters. Axelrod's style "bordered on outrageous," says Heath, now a judge in northeast Indiana. "It relied on an ignorant public that doesn't have time to check the ads."
"Axelrod's holier-than-a-hack image is … soiled by a penchant for airing negative television commercials" was the assessment of a 1987 Chicago magazine profile. In the article, titled "Hatchet Man," Axelrod defended himself as a realist. "Now, when you put on negative ads, whipping the other guy, they always say you are debasing the process," he told the magazine. "But if you run positive media, playing up your guy, they call you an idiot." In any case, he said, too much nastiness can backfire: "You know, negative media is like radiation therapy. It's hard to judge when you're curing or killing."
The real test for any strategist is how to calibrate the positive and the negative. With Obama up by 11 points (52 to 41 percent) in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Axelrod wants to maintain the "brand"—a candidate who can appeal in red and blue states, who can pull people together, who aims for a more noble sort of politics—while also showing that Obama is tough enough to govern in a dangerous and uncertain world. Change is good; "Obambi" is not. The smart approach for any Democrat at this stage—with the economy crashing around an already unpopular Republican White House—may be to play it safe. But if McCain keeps hitting the character issue hard, expect Obama to keep hitting back, bashing his opponent as "erratic" and "unsteady." Also expect Obama to run flat-out: the campaign is planning to buy 30 minutes of prime time on network and cable television less than a week before the vote. By then, of course, Axelrod hopes he'll be blowing the last wisps of smoke from the barrels of his guns.