CHICAGO -- Sen. Barack Obama strode into a hotel ballroom filled with expectation one recent Tuesday and declared that his quest for the Oval Office, which "began as a whisper in Springfield, has swelled to a chorus of millions calling for change." That's the essence of the Illinois senator's message: Obama equals change; Hillary Clinton equals status quo. All else cascades from there.
In this contest - where the candidates are but a micron or so apart on most policy matters - message is everything.
This simple theme has powered Obama to victory in 25 contests so far, most recently in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses.
The keeper of that message is David Axelrod, political reporter turned political consultant and Obama's chief strategist.
Axelrod, a burly 52-year-old with a drooping mustache, helped put together the team working to get Obama elected. He oversees ad creation and coordinates with the campaign's pollsters. During the candidate's preparation for debates, he is "Hillary Clinton."
When he is not at Obama's side on the campaign trail, he is most often found in front of a television camera or surrounded by reporters, talking about the man he calls "my friend." Asked point-blank what he does all day, he recently responded: "schmooze."
Axelrod is described variously as Obama's answer to Karl Rove and the most powerful political consultant not on a coast. And at a time when Clinton is shaking up her campaign staff, Axelrod is someone, said one political observer, who "ain't going to be fired."
Fifteen years ago, Axelrod was a young political consultant based in Chicago. Obama, fresh from Harvard Law School and largely unknown, was coordinating a voter registration drive here. One day, Axelrod got a call from a friend.
"She said, 'I just met the most extraordinary person,'" he recounted. " 'I think he may be the president of the United States one day.' And I thought, "That's kind of a grandiose thing to say.'"
The two men met and became friendly. When Axelrod heard in 2002 that Obama was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, he thought, "What a difference he could make."
"There was not an African-American in the U.S. Senate, and there were very few people of his caliber," Axelrod said. "He was not a front-runner at that point. He was quite the underdog. But I told him I wanted to work with him."
Axelrod describes that collaboration as "a great adventure," in which a little-known state senator with a funny name "overcame all kinds of obstacles and all kinds of odds. I was proud of him then. I was proud of him as a public official."
Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, said Axelrod and Obama "came out the other end" of that hard-fought race "with a close-knit relationship" that makes their current collaboration unique.
"A lot of times, consultants don't know the clients that well and aren't plugged into their particular political philosophy or vision," Carrick said. But "this tight bond they have makes them effective together."
Axelrod raised eyebrows in liberal circles by working on the mayoral campaign of Richard M. Daley, son of the man who brand-named Chicago's political machine, but his client list generally runs to progressive Democratic candidates. Obama was a natural fit.
Axelrod left the Chicago Tribune in 1984 to manage the Senate campaign of Paul M. Simon, then a socially liberal Illinois congressman.
As a political writer, Axelrod covered Harold Washington's run to become the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. Four years later, he worked on Washington's successful re-election effort. He was part of Deval Patrick's 2006 race to become the first black governor of Massachusetts. Today, Patrick stumps for Obama.
At some point, Axelrod worked for five of the eight candidates running to be the 2008 Democratic nominee. He was part of John Edwards' White House bid four years ago, and helped get Tom Vilsack, briefly a candidate, win two terms as the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 30 years. He has worked for Clinton and for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
The Obama staff is reluctant to divulge details of how the campaign operates from day to day. But longtime Axelrod friends and colleagues are quick to point where they see the strategist's hand in Obama's effort.
Chicago political consultant Don Rose describes his former protege as "a bright guy, knows politics, can write a good sentence with a subject, an object and a verb."
Rose is sure Axelrod was the brains behind one of Obama's best lines. During a debate in New Hampshire, Clinton slammed Obama for raising "false hopes" in the American electorate with his message of hope and change.
The next day, Obama shot back in a riff that he still uses:
"What does that mean, false hopes? How have we made progress in this country? Did John F. Kennedy look at the moon and say, 'Ah, thought so, too far. Reality check. Can't do it'?
"Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument. 'Sorry guys. False hope. This dream thing is a false hope. We can't expect equality'?
"False hopes," he snorted.
The crowds go wild.
In his next life, Axelrod acknowledged to a friend over drinks, he might like to be a joke writer. For now, though, he is keeping his day job.
Maria L. La Ganga writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Occupation: Political media consultant
Education: graduate, University of Chicago Career: Reporter and political writer, Chicago Tribune, eight years; left newspapers in 1984 to become a political consultant
Clients: Include Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, John Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois (current)