Superstition, Strategy in Obamaland Mix

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Barack Obama’s Ohio campaign manager has neither shaved his face in a month nor has he shown up to the office without his Columbus Clippers baseball hat.

Aaron Pickrell associated Obama’s uptick in the Ohio polls in late September with his personal hygiene and wardrobe choices at that time, so he kept the look. With only hours left in the longest presidential race in modern history, Pickrell stalked around a rally here Sunday sporting a lumberjack beard and a dog-eared cap.

The final days are a mix of strategy and superstition for those most intimately involved in the campaign. They fret over the precision of turnout models and early voting numbers and polling but also take comfort in the unscientific rituals that have provided some sense of control in a wildly unpredictable political season.

“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” Pickrell, 36, said about his look, which involves a hairy neck and nearly disguised facial features. “Here’s what happened. We went ahead in the polls, two polls in a row. I had been lazy for a week and hadn’t shaved and had been wearing my hat to work and after the second poll came out that had us up, I decided, well, something is going right here, I’m not going to mess with it and here I am.”

There are no reports yet to match operative James Carville's 1992 decision not to change his underwear for an extended period of time when things were going well for Bill Clinton.

But chief strategist David Axelrod has been carrying the same pink quartz heart in his pants pocket for about three weeks. A woman he didn't know approached him at an event and gave it to him.

“She seemed to have an aura about her,” Axelrod said. “We have been doing pretty well since then.”

Mark Lippert, a senior foreign policy adviser who travels with Obama, carries a massive rucksack every day. The Navy reservist used the desert-colored, multi-pocketed backpack during a year’s deployment in Iraq, so he figures it might be powerful enough to deliver good luck in a presidential campaign, too.

Obama likes to say he’s superstitious, but he let himself speak Sunday night what many in his campaign ranks try not to think—let alone say out loud—for fear of jinxing it: He might be headed for victory.

“The past couple of days I’ve just been feeling good,” Obama told 80,000 people who gathered to see him and Bruce Springsteen in a downpour. “You start thinking maybe we might be able to win an election on November 4.”

Democrats have believed this before. The Obama campaign is infused with aides who remember Al Gore and worked for John Kerry, whose hopes were raised four years ago when early exit polls on Election Day showed him ahead in a contest he ultimately lost. They know all too well how the winds can suddenly gust in a different direction.

It wasn’t lost on Obama supporters that Springsteen appeared with Kerry on election eve in Cleveland, and that didn’t turn out well for them. The McCain campaign e-mailed reporters a reminder of this factoid under the subject line, “Glory Days?”

“I’m glad they let me come back,” Springsteen said Sunday, drawing twice the crowd he did in 2004. “They didn’t think I might jinx them or something.”

But Obama campaign aides remained giddy Sunday. The crowds at three Ohio stops were massive. The polls were holding steady. Hundreds of thousands of doors were knocked on across battleground states. Aside from the news Saturday that his Kenyan aunt had been living in the country illegally, which in political terms amounted to a minor distraction, there were no major surprises on the final weekend that threatened to shake up the race.

Democratic political circles were consumed with chatter about the look of a potential Obama cabinet, but senior strategist Robert Gibbs insisted Sunday that neither Obama nor his campaign aides were spending much time thinking about Nov. 5.

“Very few people are focused beyond Tuesday,” Gibbs said. “There is a group of people in each campaign focused beyond Tuesday. The people working on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are only worried about that.”

John McCain, who has long been known for his superstitions, stayed in the same hotel room on the night of the New Hampshire primary as he did in 2000, when he beat that year's Republican favorite, George W. Bush.

McCain returned Sunday to New Hampshire for a town hall meeting—his signature event in his signature state—despite a New Hampshire-WMUR poll released Thursday showing Obama up by nearly 20 points in the state.

Aides say Obama isn’t showing any more superstitious behavior than usual.

The Illinois senator admitted in June to carrying a pocket full of charms. He dug his hand into his pants pocket in the middle of an event and revealed what look like a junk drawer of goodies: a “lucky poker chip” given to him by a voter, an American eagle pin from a Native American woman and a small golden statue of the Monkey King.

Obama openly embraced superstition in January when he began correlating basketball with victory. He played on the day of the Iowa caucus, which he won, but did not shoot hoops on the day of the New Hampshire primary, which he lost. With rare exception, he has corralled aides, friends and occasionally members of the media to indulge his superstition on every primary election day.

Obama, naturally, will play basketball Tuesday.

His personal assistant, Reggie Love, will wear jeans, as he always does on election days. And Jen Psaki, the press secretary who has traveled with the Obama press corps almost every day since the Iowa caucus, will slip into the cowboy boots that she bought during the Texas primary—if for no other reason than she feels they are “lucky.”

About 20 guys in the Ohio office haven’t shaved since Obama pulled ahead of McCain, Pickrell said, pausing to point out a bearded colleague who walked by.

“We shower, we change clothes, we do all that stuff,” he said, but they haven’t put a razor to their faces.

“It’s ridiculous, I admit it, but what else are you going to do?”

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