Steve Hildebrand, the veteran political operative selected to plot a victory for Sen. Barack Obama in Iowa, drew a deep breath and began his pitch.
At the other end of the phone line was a 27-year-old schoolteacher from a town northeast of Des Moines. The man had attended at least four Obama events, and his wife was an Obama precinct captain. But he still was not ready to commit.
"Give me a sense of where your head is at," Hildebrand said calmly.
"Today, I've probably gone from Edwards to Obama to Richardson back to Edwards to Obama," the man responded. When Hildebrand hung up 22 minutes later, he had scribbled a list of position papers to send to the potential supporter to review, on topics including nuclear power, new coal technology and school testing.
It was scarcely 15 months ago that the young senator from neighboring Illinois, billed as "a rising star in Democratic politics," appeared as the guest speaker at the annual steak fry sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democratic Party's highest-profile event of the year. Today Obama is drawing among the largest crowds in Iowa caucus history and is among the front-runners. His bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination seems less improbable by the day.
Obama's strategy is one part message, one part elbow grease, following the Iowa maxim "organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end." Obama will spend the campaign's final days rallying Democrats in gymnasiums and auditoriums. But behind the scenes, the onetime Chicago community organizer has dispatched an army of paid staff and volunteers occupying a record 37 offices across the state to wage a more personal battle for support, one wavering teacher at a time.
"We feel strong and positive, but urgent at the same time," said Hildebrand, who ran Iowa for Al Gore in 2000. "We know we've got a lot to do. Barack has to close the deal, our operation has to produce, and if we do both of those things, there's a good potential that Barack could come out the winner."
Obama has bounced relentlessly between the East Coast and the Midwest over the past months, seeking to bring some of the momentum he has built in Iowa to New Hampshire, which will vote five days after the first-in-the nation caucuses. After a brief trip home to Chicago for Christmas, Obama will return to Iowa on Dec. 26 with reinforcements: his wife, Michelle, his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, his mother-in-law, his sister and brother-in-law from Hawaii, plus assorted friends and other family members. That's in addition to hundreds, if not thousands, of Obama workers that the campaign intends to dispatch.
"Basically, starting on the 26th, it's all Iowa all the time," Obama said in an interview.
Even at this late stage, while his top aides are working to win over potential supporters one by one, Obama is visiting far-flung counties where Democratic caucusgoers are harder to find. The slightest edge could make all the difference in the tight finish that all the campaigns are predicting between Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.). On a five-day tour that ended Tuesday, Obama stopped in several western rural counties for the first time. He hopes to break more new ground when he returns for a swing through eastern Iowa this weekend.
Obama's campaign is hardly the only one that has turned the universe of Iowa Democrats into one massive spreadsheet. All six Democratic candidates actively campaigning in Iowa, including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who are lagging behind the three front-runners, are running textbook campaigns. "They all have better organizations than anyone in 2004," said Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and an Obama supporter.
"There is so much sophistication, so much staff, all those field offices," Fischer said. "Certainly the top three are out-organizing the others, but there is simply no comparison" to the level of organization in past caucuses.
Millions of dollars, hundreds of paid staff and the most sophisticated voter research ever assembled have translated into a barrage of phone calls, mail, and television and radio ads. Before taking her own Christmas break, Clinton and a host of surrogates, including her husband, former president Bill Clinton, are hitting all 99 Iowa counties this week and continue to try to capitalize on her endorsement by the Des Moines Register. Edwards, who never stopped campaigning here after finishing second in the 2004 caucuses, has a strong core of support that includes union members and rural Democrats, among the most loyal of caucusgoers. He'll hit the road to start a final lap around the state on the morning of Dec. 27.
"I've never seen it like this before. Really, ever," said Steffen Schmidt, a veteran political scientist at Iowa State University. "At the top, especially, it's a completely level playing field. It feels like anything could happen. It kind of makes you optimistic."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed Obama and Clinton tied for first place in Iowa, with Edwards a not-so-distant third. Seeking an edge, Clinton and Obama in particular are heavily courting nontraditional caucusgoers, aiming to turn out about 150,000 Democrats, about 20 percent higher than the 2004 total.
Most of the campaigns are now focused on an elusive group of undecided Democrats who are watching the race closely but remain reluctant to commit. On his bus between events, Obama punches numbers into a cellphone, working through a list of sheriffs and local party officials still up for grabs. At the beginning of his rallies, he asks for a show of hands from the undecideds, usually about a fifth of the audience.
Mary Donegan Ritter was among the undecided at an Obama rally last weekend at Waterloo. She showed up with her husband, Kurt, an Obama supporter, and their two children. "I do believe that Hillary has more experience," Ritter said. "But I think he's more about creating positive change and working with people."
Her son James tugged her coat. "You're going to vote for Barack Obama?"
"I'm thinking about it," she answered. "I still have two weeks to decide."
A year ago, Obama was relatively unknown in Iowa. Edwards, by comparison, made his first campaign appearance in the state in February 2003. Clinton has been a household name for 15 years.
The Obama campaign decided early on that to run well in Iowa, it would have to expand the universe of caucusgoers to include nontraditional targets such as students, frustrated Republicans, independents and minorities. And to do that, the campaign would have to build the largest, most ambitious grass-roots effort in caucus history. Staffers made their way to Iowa before the early corn was planted in spring and in June the campaign mailed 100,000 copies of a biographical DVD to likely caucusgoers.
Obama also benefited from his base across the Mississippi River in Illinois. For months, volunteers by the hundreds have crossed into Iowa to knock on doors. In Waterloo last weekend, Obama introduced Rep. Danny K. Davis, a Chicago Democrat who had traveled nearly five hours with a busload of volunteers to work local precincts for the day.
At the busy Obama headquarters in Carroll, about 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, fresh sheets of paper are taped to the walls, setting out volunteer tasks for each day from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3.
"I will make phone calls to my neighbors," reads one category. "I will knock on doors in my neighborhood," reads another. "I will bring in food for staff and volunteers." Other priorities include organizing caucus carpools and babysitting services for the two-hour sessions.
Campaign officials stress that a hundred small things can turn a precinct.
"Everybody moves for different reasons," said Brendan Beattie, who is working 15-hour days for Obama in Carroll. "We're doing anything and everything this side of the law to get them out. There's no silver bullet. No idea is the idea."
One senior Obama adviser described knocking on a door this week in Des Moines precinct. A woman answered and asked him to give a message to the local organizer, whom she knew by name: "She said, 'Tell Frances I broke my leg in three places and I'm going to need a ride. I don't know if my mom's going to make it."
Over the last weeks of the campaign, Obama will continue to deliver his closing argument, that his candidacy is not a personal quest but a collective effort.
"The challenge for us in the next few weeks is to make sure that I not only deliver this message for change, but that I invite Iowa caucusgoers to be a part of this broader movement for change, convincing them that their participation is critical," Obama said.
"Part of my job is to just get before those voters who have a favorable impression, but who haven't had a chance to lift the hood and kick the tires," Obama said. "People desperately want to see a different way of doing business in Washington. I think they have confidence that I can bring those changes about. What we have to do is convince them that, in fact, change is possible."