Before Baltimore native Nicole Price dove into the trenches of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, she considered working for the Illinois senator's Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
But for Price, a 35-year-old former community organizer and veteran Maryland political campaigner, the decision came down to one question: What would her grandmother think?
"On every campaign, the one thing I always ask of myself is, `Would I tell my grandmother this is the candidate you should vote for?'" she said during an interview last week at Obama's bustling Baltimore County campaign headquarters in Towson. "I can do that for Senator Obama with no questions. While I admire Senator Clinton, I didn't have that same emotional feeling."
Sweeping the weekend's nominating contests in Maine, Louisiana, Washington and Nebraska, Obama heads into today's Potomac primaries with momentum. The underdog campaign that Price joined last summer has transformed, its candidate propelled to near rock-star status.
"This campaign has been the most incredible experience of my lifetime," said Price, political director for Obama's Maryland campaign.
She became an Obama supporter instantly, mesmerized by the Illinois senator's 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention. Frustrated by the polarization of the dominant political parties, Price said she was inspired by Obama's message of unity and his ideas to solve vexing problems in health care and education.
She said this was a politician her grandmother Emma Houston, a factory worker with a fourth-grade education who died three years ago after battling Alzheimer's disease, could trust. Price remembers the financial struggles Houston faced when the factory shut down and her grandmother, near retirement age, lost her only source of income.
"What she gave most was her work ethic, her tenacity and her love for her family," Price said. "If I could have half the strength my grandmother had, I would be a great woman."
Price spent the first five years of her life in Baltimore's notorious Murphy Homes housing complex before her parents moved to Forest Park in Northwest Baltimore. She graduated from City College and Coppin State University. She later earned a master's degree in negotiations and conflict management from the University of Baltimore, paving the way for union organizing and leading the election campaigns of Maryland state Sens. Barbara A. Hoffman and Lisa A. Gladden, both Democrats.
Price joined Obama's campaign as a field director in South Carolina, a crucial state where Obama had trailed in the polls. The experience enabled Price to make the most of her activist skills.
"To go to a place where they were using community organizing skills, really trying to engage the community - it was awesome," she said.
It was also exhausting. Price stayed six months in South Carolina, spending grueling days canvassing rural communities and organizing volunteers. In the three days before the primary last month, she slept 30 minutes, nodding off in her desk chair.
Price may be idealistic and soft-spoken, but she is all business on the trail, both meticulous and intense. Some staffers complained she was too demanding and tried to get her fired, Price said. They called her "The Pricenator."
"I knew we had to do certain things to win," she said, smacking her fist on the desk in front of her. "We had to win. I was there to win,"
Maryland politicians were struck by Price's passion well before she joined the Obama team. Price led Hoffman's 2002 nail-biter race against newcomer Gladden.
"I was so angry at her," Gladden said with a chuckle. "She was very good and very organized. Her work ethic is so high, and she really does deliver."
"Everywhere I'd see her, Lisa would give me these dirty looks," Price said with a laugh.
After Gladden unseated Hoffman, she became so impressed with Price that Gladden asked her to manage her re-election bid in 2006. Today Gladden is one of Price's biggest champions, crediting her with reshaping her disorganized campaigning style into a focused effort.
"I had this random, walk-down-the-street method," Gladden said. "She wasn't about playing around. I learned I had to do exactly what she says."
When Obama won South Carolina, the campaign's team in that state was dispatched to Maryland. Price was promoted to political director, where her web of Maryland contacts has been an asset, said her boss Jeremy Bird, state director for the Obama campaign.
Maryland has been "easy" compared to South Carolina's race, said Price, who has spent the past two weeks organizing rallies and events for Maryland elected officials who support Obama.
She's also glad to be back home with her 13-year-old son, Shawn, whom she left with her parents during the six months she spent in South Carolina. She struggled with the decision to be apart from him for so long, but he encouraged her to go.
"He said, `Ma, this is a great opportunity for you,'" she said. "If you have a chance to elect the first African-American president, you should do it."