After an enthusiastic beginning, the Obama campaign seemed to hit a wall. Eight months after he announced his candidacy in Springfield and on the eve of the primaries, Obama still trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points in the national polls, and people were still predicting that she could wrap up the nomination by the middle of February.
Obama's performance in the early Democratic debates, in the fall of 2007, lacked inspiration. He seemed flat, professorial, and wonkish.
Obama's chief political strategist David Axelrod was aware of the deficiencies. "I think he was tryin' to figure out how to be a candidate at the beginning," Axelrod told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft. "And I think there was a period of time when it was a little like a shock to his system. And I remember him saying to me, 'I'm gonna learn how to be a great candidate.'"
The first real test would come in Iowa. The campaign knew from the beginning that to have a chance of winning the nomination, they would have to defeat Senator Clinton there and shatter the myth of her inevibility.
An extraordinary speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner made a huge impression on the state leaders and helped him recruit thousands of volunteers.
"Somebody stood up for me when it was risky. And because that somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world. That's why I'm running, Iowa," Obama said.
As they would do over and over again in the caucus states, Obama's staff simply out-organized and out-maneuvered the Clinton campaign, and he won a state that was 95 percent white by a comfortable margin. "They said this day would never come. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do," Obama said in his victory speech.
Obama's Iowa win had gotten everyone's attention. The strategy had paid off.
"I remember a conversation I had with Senator Obama in Boston, I think. And he told me that John F. Kennedy spent 60 days campaigning for president, and that he had spent 80 days in Iowa," Kroft told David Axelrod.
"Eighty-three, but who's counting?" Axelrod replied, laughing.
Axelrod acknowledged the win was huge. "It was everything."