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Politico: No referees in politics

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By Roger Simon
for POLITICO.com

CHICAGO — Imagine a large room. Imagine a larger room. Then double it in size. You are now in the offices of OFA.

OFA stands for Obama for America — an homage, perhaps, to the fictional "The West Wing" and its "Bartlet for America" theme — a way of suggesting that some candidates do not run for president, but for the nation.

Which is all very nice except the 400 or so people in this room sitting at rows of desks that seem to recede into the horizon and below the curvature of the earth are all tapping away at laptops and desktops in pursuit of a single-minded goal: the reelection of Barack Obama as president.

The office is in a tower that overlooks Chicago's magnificent Millennium Park to the south — David Axelrod's office overlooks "Cloud Gate," the 110-ton, polished-to-a-mirror, $23 million, stainless steel "bean" that eventually every tourist in America will pose in front of — and the lakefront to the east.

Not that many of the worker bees get this view. They see desks and desks and more desks, a stuffed animal here, a bouquet (possibly plastic) there, and state flags hanging from the ceiling everywhere, a none-too-subtle reminder that presidential elections are about winning states — states that add up to 270 electoral votes. (About another 400 Obama campaign staffers are out working in those states.)

The average age of the workers at the headquarters is 26, which makes Axelrod, 57, a father figure. Another father figure, he is 51 and president of the United States, visited headquarters recently and was, like most visitors, blown away.

"I think he was overwhelmed by the sea of humanity," Axelrod said. "He stayed for a good hour. He played Ping-Pong with some people and listened to a kid on the staff describe how he proposed to his girlfriend."

Headquarter visits by the candidate are disruptive — work comes to a halt — but are also inspirational. "When the guy on the poster comes in and he's who you hoped he would be, it energizes everybody," Axelrod said.

"Don't win this for me," Obama told the staff. "Win this for you."

There was applause and more than one teary eye. And then everybody got back to work.

The room, gigantic as it is, represents only half the Obama floor space in the tower and houses only the communications, press, research and policy staffs.

Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary, dressed in a white shirt, tie, jacket and blue jeans, is 31 and oversees a multitude of operations including the Truth Team and Rapid Response Team, which listens to all utterances by the opposition, checks them out, brands them as lies and disseminates its own take on the truth far and wide. While that is not a pioneering idea, the scope of what LaBolt does could not even have been imagined by Bill Clinton's "War Room" of 1992.

"We're on every social media platform that is available," LaBolt told me.

The evening before, I had dinner with a friend who told me she was using Pinterest — a site that pins pictures to an electronic bulletin board — to get decorating ideas for her apartment.

"Are you on Pinterest?" I asked LaBolt.

"We are on Pinterest," he replied.

LaBolt also said he tries to get ahead of the media and their reporting. What reporters and producers call him to ask reveals what they are working on and allows the campaign to shape the story or ready a response. And LaBolt makes his own calls every day. "What's up?" he asks reporters and producers. "What are you pursuing?"

LaBolt also maintains an intense interest in local news. "I need to know what's on the news in Cleveland," he said. "That's not on national cable. I need to know what people in battleground states are seeing, what the national press corps is following and what is floating online."

The campaign tries to do "strategic planning" two weeks in advance of events, which is sometimes possible and sometimes not.

"We're coming up on the Republican convention," a senior campaign official told me. "We know they'll be talking about Medicare and quoting economic statistics. But they can't talk about the middle class or about what the middle class is going through. Their candidate is not in touch with that."

Still, the Obama campaign expects Mitt Romney to get a bounce in the polls out of the convention next week in Tampa. Many things will be said at the convention that the Obama team will consider false, and it will try to get its viewpoint into the stories emanating from there.

Last week, Mitt Romney said Obama's campaign was one of "division and anger and hate." LaBolt responded that Romney "seemed unhinged."

All this has led to increasing calls for the media — or somebody — to not just report the utterances of both sides but to determine truth from falsity and act as referee.

This is not likely to happen.

"But if you find out who the referee is," LaBolt said, "let me know."

Roger Simon is POLITICO's chief political columnist. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.


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