US presidential frontrunner Barack Obama is on stage in a basketball arena in Fayetteville, North Carolina - another southern Republican stronghold he is trying to topple. Speaking to an adoring audience, Senator Obama appears to sense victory within his grasp. His manner is by turns passionate, reassuring and nuanced; his convictions apparently fuelled by news that Republican warrior-statesman Colin Powell has endorsed his cause to be America's first black president. The mostly African-American crowd is in something of a frenzy, chanting, singing and dancing. They, too, can see a triumph that many of them thought would never happen. On the fringes, a rumpled man with sad eyes glances up at the audience, as if he is gauging the temperature. He nods to himself, tugs at his moustache and walks on. In jeans, scuffed brown shoes and leather jacket, he could be any other punter. Despite his unremarkable appearance, David Axelrod, 54, is probably the most powerful man in US politics right now, other than his client. A political strategist from Senator Obama's native Chicago, the consultant has masterminded a rise for his client that is as stunning as it is historic, leading one of the most inexperienced candidates to grace the national stage to the cusp of a great victory. Helping Senator Obama from the Illinois state legislature to the US Senate in Washington four years ago, and possibly beyond, has been the work of his political life. He's been constantly at Senator Obama's side and on his phone during that time. He has helped frame his candidate's message of inclusion and appeal to America's higher motives. He's honed Senator Obama's strengths - his steady temperament, charisma and discipline - while working on his weaknesses, the professorial manner, detachment and lack of experience. Critics have dismissed it as cynical political branding - a campaign founded on the manufacturing of an image and the manipulation of message rather than substance. Yet as Senator Obama unleashes his performance before his North Carolina fans, it is clearly heady stuff. A local black gospel choir has silenced the arena with a drawn-out version of the US national anthem. Soon Senator Obama is preaching the politics of peace and inclusion - a message tailored for black and white, and tweaked to neutralise the 'real America' rhetoric of his Republican opponents. There is no 'red' [Republican] America and no 'blue' America. 'Patriots' opposed the Iraq war, just as 'patriots' supported it. The soldiers, he adds, 'fought together and bled together and some died together all under the same proud flag'. If this performance is now seen as classic Obama, it is also classic Axelrod. In part at least, it is the message the former Chicago Tribune political reporter has forged in earlier dealings with a string of African-American mayoral candidates in divided urban environments, including Dennis Archer in Detroit and Anthony Williams in Washington. His consultancy, AKP&D Message and Media, has also helped senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards in the past and veteran Chicago mayor Richard Daley. He managed to avoid direct involvement with the failed presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. All up, AKP&D has worked with more than 40 Democratic candidates in 23 years, boasting an 80 per cent success rate. Another partner, David Plouffe, is Senator Obama's campaign manager. With Senator Obama, Mr Axelrod has perfected the strategy of melding black and white aspirations on the national stage - and found a candidate of considerable political talent. The pair had known each other for years in Chicago before they formally joined forces for the 2004 Senate race, which Senator Obama won by a landslide. Mr Axelrod was aware of his potential, but also some awkward edges in the former editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had also worked with many of Senator Obama's internal rivals, but was eventually swayed by his idealism. The Kennedy-esque comparisons were a powerful draw for Mr Axelrod. When he was just 13, he hawked campaign buttons on the streets of New York's Lower East Side during the ultimately tragic bid for the White House by Robert Kennedy in 1968. In Senator Obama, he saw a potentially transformational leader, helping him draft the prescient anti-Iraq war speech in 2002 that thrust him onto the national stage. 'My involvement was a leap of faith,' Mr Axelrod told Obama biographer David Mendell in Obama: From Promise to Power. 'Barack showed flashes of brilliance as a candidate during the early stages of the campaign, but there were times of absolute pure drudgery,' he said of the race for the US Senate seat. 'His speeches were very theoretical and intellectual and very long. But I thought that if I could help Barack Obama get to Washington, then I would have accomplished something great in my life.' But there is more to a White House campaign than just message. Senator Obama's eloquence is more than matched by a formidable organisation, helped in part again by Mr Axelrod. 'Between them, they have changed organisational politics forever,' said one envious Republican lobbyist. 'The Obama machine is, frankly, incredible and there are very good, very sound reasons why he has the lead he does right now. 'I've got to admit, he's beating the Republicans at their own game.' Part of it is money. A successful internet marketing operation has in part helped Senator Obama amass a war chest of more than US$620 million - a figure unprecedented in US political history. He has pulled in more than US$150 million in the past month alone, allowing his campaign to outspend Mr McCain 4 to 1 in the swing states that hold the keys to victory. Part of this buys television and radio advertising, blitzing key areas with policy messages and attacks on opponents. Other spending goes to extensive grass-roots campaigning - get-out-the-vote operations. In northern Virginia, for example, teams of young Asian-Americans are targeting independent voters among minority immigrant groups. In some key districts, they know street by street, house by house where the swing voters live and their backgrounds. The tough urban environment of Chicago, the commercial and industrial hub of America's vast Midwest, was famous for its machine politics through the 20th century. Senator Obama, with Mr Axelrod next to him, has adapted some of its lessons to the internet and pushed it to the national stage. A deeply introspective man, those who know him say, Mr Axelrod has been 'in the zone' for months. 'His mind just never stops ... it is like he has this vision of what is going to happen and he is just so driven to make it work,' said one Democratic colleague. 'I've never seen anyone quite so driven ... he seems to barely sleep. 'Somehow his gentle warmth and humour still shine through, even if his leg is twitching and he's got two phones in his hands.' Colleagues and friends say his idealism may have personal roots after a life that has endured tragedy. His beloved psychologist father committed suicide when he was 19 and his daughter Lauren suffered brain damage from severe epilepsy. He and his wife, Susan Landau, created a charity to fund research into the condition. Should Senator Obama win as expected on November 4, few are expecting Mr Axelrod to join him in the White House. Mr Axelrod knows campaigning is his strength. He may have some talent to offer, however. Some of his previous successes have been known to struggle once they leave the campaign bubble for the hard reality of governance. But even if he does retreat from the stage, Mr Axelrod will have rewritten US political science if his latest mission succeeds. It is sometimes said that the great strategists - James Carville (Clinton, 1992) and Karl Rove (Bush, 2000) - have only one truly stunning election win in them. If that is true, David Axelrod could well be living his right now.