McCain vs. Obama's '50-State Strategy'

Barack Obama's supporters talk about how they've given sweat and tears to the cause. Paul Tewes can do better than that: he gave his eyebrows. Last Fourth of July weekend, Tewes, who led Obama's winning campaign in Iowa, pushed his staff of field organizers and volunteers to sign up thousands of new supporters around the state. He set an unreasonably tough goal and didn't really expect them to meet it. To motivate his overworked underlings, he joked that if they succeeded he'd shave off his eyebrows. At least he thought he was joking. At the end of the weekend, the organizers reported their tallies on a conference call. They'd done it. At first Tewes tried to back out. He worried his brows wouldn't grow back. But his staffers held him to the promise. "It was very painful," he says now with a laugh. "When I'd go jogging, the sweat ran straight into my eyes."

That kind of dedication gets you noticed by the higher-ups. A year later, Tewes has a brand-new set of eyebrows, and a new job: head of the Democratic Party's massive national field operation to elect Obama. In the coming weeks, Tewes will lead the effort to put the national party under the Obama campaign's control. The idea is to re-create the kind of success he had in Iowa, but on a much larger scale—mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers and organizers nationwide in what the Democrats call their "50-state strategy." Instead of the usual way of doing things—putting precious campaign dollars into only those states the candidate has a chance of winning—the Obama team will run hard everywhere, even in traditionally Republican states.

Sort of. Obama's strategists don't really believe he can beat John McCain in Utah. So why blow cash there? To force McCain, who has far less money on hand than Obama ($24 million versus $46 million) to spend more there, too. Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania governor who won his state for Hillary Clinton but now backs Obama, suggests the 50-state approach is more like the arms race with the Soviets than a presidential-campaign strategy. "There's something to be said for … making sure the other side spends resources to defend areas that they don't normally spend resources in," Rendell tells NEWSWEEK.

There's another reason for spreading the wealth: winning "down ticket" congressional races that could pay off later if Obama takes the White House. "While we might not win Wyoming, there's a very important congressional seat that the [Democratic] candidate lost by 1,200 votes in '06," says Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy national campaign director, who started a consulting firm with Tewes. "What can we do in '08 to help [the Democrat]? Can we register new voters, or increase the number of Democratic voters to turn out? Can we use our volunteers that are motivated by Barack Obama to help him? We don't have great expectations that we can win everywhere. But we … might help elect members to Congress. And they might help pass universal health care and bring the troops home from Iraq."

Tewes, 38, has spent years trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. He got his start in big-time politics in 2000, when Hildebrand hired him to help run Al Gore's Iowa campaign. That time, he was on the side of the establishment candidate who was battling an insurgent Bill Bradley. One thing he's learned in the field: the importance of getting there early. The Obama campaign began organizing a national voter drive even before he secured the nomination. Last week the camp deployed 3,600 volunteers to 17 states, where they are proselytizing for the candidate and looking for recruits.

In election years, the nominee is usually also the head of the national party; in case anyone had any doubts that Obama was serious about taking control, Tewes announced he's effectively moving the DNC's offices to Chicago, where Obama's campaign is headquartered. Party Chairman Howard Dean—who faced a nasty fight with party elders when he proposed an expensive 50-state strategy to win back Congress in 2006—will continue to raise funds and give speeches, but the money and the message are now in Obama's hands. State party leaders, long used to running things their way, will take directions from Obama's field operation. Campaign aides say they want to put an end to the usual confusion that comes from the party's saying one thing and the candidate another. It's easy to find the guy giving those directions. He's the one with light brown hair. Medium build. Eyebrows.