Rory Steele had bounced along a gravel road that rides like a washboard to get to the farmstead. He stepped across a few rows of soybeans, climbed up the steps of a red Case combine and squeezed into a seat next to Lyle McIntosh, who was circling a field.
Mr. Steele drove 17 miles from his office in Council Bluffs that crisp October morning to see how the harvest was coming along. He had no stake in the crop yields or commodity prices, but another question weighed on his mind: Would the work be finished in time for Mr. McIntosh to help drum up support for Senator Barack Obama?
For all the uncertainties in presidential campaigns, Mr. Steele would not have guessed that a soggy, unusually long harvest would complicate his task of building an organization for Mr. Obama. Yet since arriving here in March, he had learned to think like a local, which in this part of Iowa means only gently pestering people about politics.
Mr. Steele, a 29-year-old former marine who has worked as a truck driver in the Pacific Northwest and a crab fisherman in Alaska, is the face of the Obama campaign in western Iowa. His territory of 21 counties, the largest in the state, is an essential front line in one of the most competitive presidential races that anyone here can recall.
The outcome of the Iowa caucuses, a set of 1,781 precinct meetings to take place across the state on Jan. 3, hinges on creating a strong and loyal person-to-person network. Mr. Steele is among the hundreds of Democratic and Republican campaign aides stationed in Iowa responsible for building — and sustaining — those networks throughout the state’s 99 counties.
That is precisely what took Mr. Steele to the soybean field. In August, Mr. McIntosh signed on as Mr. Obama’s Harrison County co-chairman, so Mr. Steele drops by from time to time to see if Mr. McIntosh is satisfied with the campaign’s direction and to replenish a supply of Obama DVDs he lends to neighbors.
“If I could make one suggestion, I would get the senator to Dunlap or Ottaway or Missouri Valley,” said Mr. McIntosh, 64, talking over the combine’s purr as he referred to three nearby towns. “I realize he can’t go everywhere, but we really need to get him over here.”
On Saturday, after more than a month of negotiating and planning by his campaign, Mr. Obama bounded onto the auctioneer’s platform at the Dunlap Livestock Auction and was greeted with applause from more than 300 people who filled the orange seats usually occupied by cattle buyers. (The campaign advance team wanted to hold the event in the local high school, but Mr. Steele and other aides fought that option, which pleased Mr. McIntosh.)
Mr. Steele is a political strategist, an office manager, a real estate prospector, a party planner, a life coach, a cheerleader, a concierge and a problem solver. Even in a campaign that has raised more than $80 million and spent $5 million on TV spots in Iowa alone, getting the office computer printer to work falls on his abilities to beg and barter.
“I can only control what I can control,” he said, “or I’d spend all day freaking out.”
So neither Mr. Steele, a soft-spoken, bearded man, nor his ever-growing cadre of young staff members spend time tracking daily campaign developments on cable television or the proliferating blogs. They seldom have time to watch the presidential debates. Their lens is purposefully microscopic.
On the ground floor here, which the campaign has designated Region 5, he and his team are recruiting precinct captains, the supporters who will organize Obama followers on caucus night. Finding a reliable captain for the Ashton Belvidere precinct in Monona County is far more important than fretting over poll numbers.
“I’m trying to find a gong,” Mr. Steele said. “Every time we get a new precinct captain, I will ring it.”
To inspire his troops, he not only encourages “Snoop Dogg breaks” — brief naps on the sofa near the front doorway of the campaign office — but he also holds competitions. On the Fourth of July, he vowed to have himself tattooed with the initials of whoever turned in the most signed supporter cards. Delane Adams, a campaign organizer from Chicago, won by submitting 33.
So on Mr. Steele’s right bicep, just below a Marine Corps tattoo, is another work of art: “DA 33 July 4.” (“I thought it would have been weird to tattoo “Obama” on my arm,” he said, “but now I have some dude’s initials on me.”)
For all this, Mr. Steele is paid roughly $2,300 a month (plus occasional mileage reimbursements) to supervise about a dozen workers and scores of volunteers. He took a temporary apartment in Council Bluffs, where he relocated for the presidential race — his first — after working the last election cycle for local Democratic candidates in Washington State.
Since arriving here eight months ago, he has logged nearly 26,000 miles on his red Chevrolet S-10 truck. He has listened to a recording of “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama’s second book, four times. He is intimately familiar with Mr. Obama’s voice, his positions and his biography, yet Mr. Steele has had only a few passing conversations with him.
Mr. Steele has never seen the campaign’s sprawling national headquarters in Chicago, on the 11th floor of a downtown skyscraper, with views of Lake Michigan and the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. From his sparse office on the first floor of a Council Bluffs office building, a window overlooks nothing.
Across the rolling bluffs and the flat plains of his territory, in towns like Defiance and Denison, Honey Creek and Harlan, it is his responsibility to know which caucusgoing Democrats are supporting which candidate.
And if the answer is someone other than Mr. Obama?
“Like a girlfriend who cheats on you, we don’t give up on people,” Mr. Steele said during an evening drive to a house party in Greene County. “We never want to burn those bridges and we never — ever — speak ill of another candidate.”
Beyond civility, there is also a practical reason for this. With six Democrats running serious campaigns for the nomination here, candidates who do not receive 15 percent of support in a caucus are deemed unviable in that caucus, so their supporters have to make a second choice. Mr. Steele does not want anyone in his region to be irked at Mr. Obama.
That does not mean he is not constantly looking for poaching opportunities, particularly a “maven,” which is campaign shorthand for a community leader, party official or, quite simply, someone who can persuade others to join the Obama team.
Consider the story of Karl Knock, a vice president of a Creston bank.
On a late-summer afternoon, Mr. Steele and Mr. Adams, the tattoo contest winner, drove two hours across southern Iowa to see Mr. Knock, a prominent Democrat who was undecided but had favorable feelings toward Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
Mr. Steele had been eying this maven for weeks. He had already given Mr. Knock a free ticket to attend an Obama fund-raiser in Omaha with Warren Buffett. Now, he was hoping to sign him on as leader for Mr. Obama’s effort in Union County.
In a basement conference room of the bank, over cans of soda, the three men talked for more than an hour. Mr. Steele mostly listened and took pages of notes on a yellow legal pad, writing down Mr. Knock’s concern about presidential powers and what he fears are threats to the Constitution and the politicization of the Justice Department.
“I like what I see with Senator Obama,” Mr. Knock said as the meeting drew to a close. “But I’ve got to figure out how I can step away from Biden. They gave me the cellphone of his national political director and his niece!”
In his daily report to state headquarters in Des Moines that evening, Mr. Steele passed along a summary of the meeting. Within a week, a campaign policy aide from the Chicago office was on the phone, answering Mr. Knock’s specific questions.
When Mr. Obama went to Creston a month later, Mr. Steele arranged a brief one-on-one meeting between the senator and Mr. Knock, who signed on to the campaign soon after.
This month at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, the Democratic Party’s marquee event of the year, who was seated at Mr. Obama’s table? Mr. Knock and his wife, Jan. Later, Ms. Knock told her husband that Mr. Obama had “swept her off her feet,” but she remained a committed supporter of former Senator John Edwards.
This could be Mr. Steele’s next project. He has less than six weeks.
I see that Rory Steele's prior political job was in Washington state. Anybody know where?