Barack Obama's hopes for the Democratic nomination hinge on getting hundreds of thousands of new voters fired up enough to actually turn out — and on spending a good chunk of his $80 million at the very end of a front-loaded campaign.
Other candidates — usually trailing, like Obama — have tried similar plans in the past and failed. But none of them had nearly the money Obama has. And the scheduling conditions of the 2008 campaign have never existed before.
Obama's plan is all about the Iowa caucuses.
His wife said recently, "If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it is just a dream." And his advisers agree that it will be nearly impossible to stop Hillary Rodham Clinton from steamrolling to the nomination if she wins in Iowa, although some still argue he could remain in the race if he comes in a close second.
They see hope in the fact that although she is surging ahead elsewhere in the country, Iowa remains a tight race between Clinton, Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
"She's run a great campaign, and she's still at 30 percent," says Steve Hildebrand, who is responsible for Obama's early state strategy.
The Obama strategy for Iowa, outlined by Hildebrand in an interview with The Associated Press and confirmed by other advisers, is three-pronged:
1. Keep Clinton's support down.
Obama has to be careful about how he makes the case against Clinton, since he's campaigning on the need for a new kind of politics of hope instead of rivals tearing each other down. He's been taking the indirect approach — criticizing the actions of the Washington establishment and letting voters and the media make the connection to Clinton.
"People hold Barack to a different standard in politics because of his own rhetoric," Hildebrand said. "He can't turn to Hillary and say, `You can't get elected because you're too polarizing. ... It's got to be in his own voice. It's got to be measured. It's got to be appropriate. It's got to be factual."
2. Keep Edwards from surging ahead.
Obama's advisers insist they do not see Edwards as a threat for the nomination even if he wins Iowa because he doesn't have enough money to continue an aggressive campaign in the 24 other states that will follow within a month. But if Edwards emerges as the top competitor with Clinton after the Iowa results, it could squeeze Obama out.
That's why the campaign spent so much time trying to keep Edwards from getting the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union last month. Anything that gives Edwards a boost comes at a cost to Obama, and so far SEIU has withheld its endorsement.
3. Continue building Obama's support among both traditional and nontraditional voters.
Obama will have plenty of resources to air television ads across all the early voting states, plus he has a large field staff in those states working intensively to recruit supporters and keep them on board. Hildebrand said 1,900 new supporters signed up the week before the interview, more than half of whom had never caucused before.
The campaign is trying to drum up supporters who are often overlooked in politics, with much of the effort geared toward blacks and young people — even high school seniors.
"If they show up every Wednesday night to volunteer in your local office, do you think they aren't going to show up on election night?" Hildebrand said, wearing a T-shirt that said "Building a Grassroots Movement" with the Obama campaign logo.
If Obama's strategy is successful he would surprise a skeptical political establishment that doesn't put much faith in younger and new voters turning out, especially in the Iowa caucuses.
"If he were to increase voting patterns by young people by dramatic numbers, he would completely change the political landscape in America," said Sara Taylor, an Iowa native and a former political strategist for President Bush.
Many point out that 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean also had a strategy to bring out young voters, yet he came in a distant third in Iowa.
"That's going to be his biggest challenge, converting enormous enthusiasm into votes," ," said former Dean adviser Steve McMahon, who sees a lot of similarities between the Dean and Obama campaigns. "The Obama candidacy is an ideal for so many people. But when all those people place all their hopes in just one man, its almost impossible to live up to the ideal, and any candidate is bound to disappoint."
Obama advisers say they learned from the 2004 campaign. While Dean, like Obama, attracted a lot of out-of-staters to Iowa to volunteer, the Obama campaign is careful to make sure that locals are leading the outreach to residents.
Dean's campaign also did a poor job of counting reliable supporters, Obama advisers say, and McMahon agrees. The Obama campaign says it is much more methodical about counting votes. The large Iowa field staff — Hildebrand says it's probably double the size of any rival campaign's — calls supporters regularly to make sure they are still on board and to invite them to local events that keep them active.
And they also are taking a page from Edwards' 2004 strategy by concentrating on rural areas, which helped Edwards come in a close second in Iowa in 2004. The campaign's goal is to put Obama in as many rural counties as possible before Clinton can get there and to line up prominent farmers and rural leaders early. And each time Obama visits a rural county, he records a thank you message to the community that is played on local radio — an inexpensive way to advertise.
What matters most? The campaign recognizes it's not just about campaigning.
"We've just got to convince them that he's got the right experience and he's electable in a general election," Hildebrand said.
to videos of Obama discussing why he stopped wearing an American flag pin and another on the "Politics of the Pin." Turns out only one other candidate is never without his pin: Rudy.