Mild-mannered and perpetually rumpled, David Axelrod can sound more like an idealistic dreamer than a bare-knuckled political operative.
Last week, talking to several hundred Obama campaign volunteers at the University of Florida, he confessed how he went to his White House office and burst into tears moments after Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010. As a young Chicago Tribune reporter he had teetered on bankruptcy at times because of the medical bills for his daughter's lifelong battle with epileptic seizures.
Never again, he said, would American families have to go through such personal turmoil.
Axelrod, 57, first met Obama as a community organizer in 1992 in Chicago and 16 years later was one of the chief architects of Obama's historic presidential election. He served in the White House, helping craft the president's message and agenda, before returning to Chicago to help steer Obama's re-election campaign as a senior adviser and strategist.
We caught up with him in Gainesville last week and found him obviously pleased by the nasty state of the Republican race but under no illusions about the challenges Obama faces winning a second term.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
• On the state of the GOP presidential race after the Michigan and Arizona primaries:
"They're still a thousand delegates away or something from what they need. I don't think that (Tuesday) was a decisive day. They split the delegates evenly in Michigan and Romney won his home state by 3 points. I'm pretty certain it was the least convincing victory a front-runner has won in his home state in like half a century."
• On the difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton's prolonged primary in 2008 and this year's GOP primary:
"We gained significantly (in approval ratings) during that process and Romney's lost significantly. All their candidates have in this process. We had a very spirited campaign but it wasn't like this — just relentlessly negative. In fact I looked back at the ads we did in the entire primary season and I think Hillary's name was mentioned twice in all the ads we did. And never in the spirit that you've seen (with the GOP race). I mean, geez, Florida was pummeled by these negative ads, and I think there's a price for that.
"The second thing is that we were not in a kind of panderfest to the most strident voices in our party. These guys just seem to be marching further and further to the right. When you're having debates about whether colleges are wholesome or not, and some of the other discussions they've been having, I think people just scratch their heads and say, 'What is this?' "
• On the state of the race in Florida:
"I think Florida is setting up to be what it has been for the last several elections: I think it's going to be very close. As you mentioned, independent voters have begun to swing back, and I think that has to do with several different factors. Some of it has to do with the president's own case and how he's made it over the past six months, some of it has to do with economic factors beyond housing, a lot of it has to do with the Republican race.
"And I think some of it has to do with what happened in 2010. In 2010 here and in many places independent voters made a decision to vote Republican and swept in people who were far more extreme than they anticipated. I think there's a great deal of buyers' remorse. You look at the Republican Congress, you look at stuff that's happened in Tallahassee, I think those independent voters are saying, 'I've heard this rhetoric before. I took a shot, and it didn't work out.' "
• Will Florida Gov. Rick Scott's unpopularity help Obama in Florida?:
"To the degree that both rhetorically and on issues he represents a philosophy of uncompromising rigidity, I think that's been very dismaying to independent voters. Here, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, you've seen governors who turned out to be farther to the right, more dogmatic, less yielding, less willing to compromise than perhaps independent voters had hoped. It does color the elections in those states. I didn't see a whole lot of folks sidling up to (Scott) during that primary season, and I don't expect they will now."
• On moderate Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's decision not to seek re-election:
"There's no doubt Sen. Snowe's a Republican and she believes in Republican principles, but she also was willing to put country ahead of party and to exercise independent judgment issue to issue, which is what people elect you to do. It speaks to what's happened to moderate Republicans when people like Olympia Snowe are run out of the Republican Party. It should be cause for concern to like-minded Republicans and certainly independent voters all over this country. In a narrow and parochial sense, I've read how this is good for the Democratic Party and so on. That may be, but the loss of her voice in the Senate is not good for the country — the narrowing of an already narrow caucus."
• What about former moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, whose party turned on him when he embraced the stimulus package? Would the campaign like to see any endorsement from Charlie Crist or encourage him to join the Democratic Party?:
"The president has a very high regard for Gov. Crist. He made a really courageous decision back in 2009 and there's no doubt that he made it because he thought it was what was best for the state of Florida. He understood the politics were difficult and he made it nonetheless. He deserves enormous credit for that and the courage he showed. You know we all talk about that we want public officials who are willing to put the next generation ahead of the next election and he was willing to make a decision like that. So we admire him."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]