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Axelrod Exclusive: Obama Strategist Rips McCain, Defends Himself Against Lobbying Charges

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Barack Obama's chief strategist leveled the campaign's harshest counterattack yet over John McCain's recent rhetoric on national security issues, and defended himself against charges that threaten to make him a focus of the campaign tit-for-tat in the coming months.

In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday with The Huffington Post, David Axelrod began with a bit of political thunder, accusing McCain of failing to question the White House as it used "deception and propaganda to essentially lead America to war."

"What does all his experience get us?" asked Obama's strategic guru. "What do all those visits [to Iraq] get us?"

He continued: "The fact that he goes to Iraq and gets a tour apparently does little to provoke the kinds of questions that should be asked, and what Sen. Obama has been asking since the beginning. So it is not a question of longevity in government. It is a question of judgment, it is a question of a willingness to challenge policies that have failed. And he seems just dug in."

Axelrod was responding to criticism that Obama had not made a recent trip to Iraq and, as such, lacked the gravitas to navigate the hostile Middle East waters. His counter-argument seemed likely to outline much of the foreign policy debate that will dominate the general election.

"We are talking on a day where the president's press secretary released a book where they frankly acknowledged that they engaged in deception and propaganda to essentially lead America to war. Senator Obama saw through that and raised the appropriate questions. Sen. McCain didn't," he said.

Axelrod also lambasted McCain for accusing Obama of being naive in his willingness to meet with world leaders both friend and foe.

"I guess the question is, if you had a chance to make progress on some of these issues that go to the security of our country and the world, why would you say you would never be willing to? It is an odd thing to say. What Sen. Obama is saying in essence is that we need to use all the tools in our toolbox when we are working and fighting for our security, including for aggressive diplomacy, which has been shunned by the Bush administration to our detriment."

Shifting to internal campaign matters, Axelrod addressed a recent Politico report that Obama was urging donors to avoid independent groups and send their money directly to his campaign, acknowledging that the Senator was making efforts to centralize his message.

"I think that our interest is in controlling the message of our own campaign and in not allowing others to develop a message for us," he said. "So to the extent possible we would like people to give their donations to us, so that we can use the money to deliver a message that is constant with Obama's desires."

How Obama structures and taps into his massive fundraising apparatus will likely go a long way in determining the success of his White House run. In addition to centralizing contributions, reports have surfaced recently suggesting that the Senator was considering a voluntary restriction on his campaign donations -- a tip of the hat to political ethics but also a recognition that he won't opt into public financing in the general election. Asked about that rumor, Axelrod kept his cards close to the vest.

"We've got a little business to transact here. We will discuss how to approach that shortly after," he said. "There are a lot of ideas that have been floated but we won't discuss them here."

The chief strategist also defended himself against a recent Newsweek story charging that he had essentially lobbied Chicago officials on behalf of his communications firm's clients. He called the piece a "red herring," and contrasted his record with that of his counterpart in the McCain campaign, chief strategist Charlie Black, who Axelrod labeled "the most powerful corporate lobbyist in Washington."

"I never lobbied anybody," Axelrod said. "What I do is make ads and try to involve people in the process, people outside the halls of legislatures or city councils, to get involved in public issues. What lobbyists do is go behind closed doors and try to influence lawmakers sometimes with implied promises of support for their campaign and so on, It is fundamentally different. I have never lobbied a politician on behalf of a client in my life. And I certainly have never talked to Obama about any client. It is a red herring put up by a campaign that is being run by the most powerful corporate lobbyist in Washington in Charlie Black and being managed by a corporate lobbyist."

It was a strategic pivot. Indeed, much of Axelrod's case against McCain was premised on the idea that the Arizona Republican had ventured from his maverick roots and had become the candidate of insider interests. Closing out the interview, Obama's right hand man continued to hammer the lobbyist theme, accusing McCain of not matching his good government rhetoric with action.

"I think that Senator McCain talks about reform and cleaning up Washington and cleaning up the budget and so on," he said. "I think there has to be a recognition that one of the reasons Washington is the way it is, and one of the reasons we have the problems we have, and one of the reasons there is a ten thousand page tax code and budget that is larded with pork and so on, is that you've got an army of corporate lobbyists patrolling Capitol Hill who are working relentlessly to put that stuff in. and if you don't recognize that you are missing a big part of the story."