Allies Ask Obama to Make ‘Hope’ More Specific

The New York Times; by Patrick Healy; August 16, 2008

As Senator Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic presidential nomination next week, party leaders in battleground states say the fight ahead against Senator John McCain looks tougher than they imagined, with Mr. Obama vulnerable on multiple fronts despite weeks of cross-country and overseas campaigning.

These Democrats — 15 governors, members of Congress and state party leaders — say Mr. Obama has yet to convert his popularity among many Americans into solutions to crucial electoral challenges: showing ownership of an issue, like economic stewardship or national security; winning over supporters of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton; and minimizing his race and experience level as concerns for voters.

Mr. Obama has run for the last 18 months as the candidate of hope. Yet party leaders — while enthusiastic about Mr. Obama and his state-by-state campaign operations — say he must do more to convince the many undecided Democrats and independents that he would address their financial anxieties rather than run, by and large, as an agent of change — given that change, they note, is not an issue.

“I particularly hope he strengthens his economic message — even Senator Obama can speak more clearly and specifically about the kitchen-table, bread-and-butter issues like high energy costs,” said Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio. “It’s fine to tell people about hope and change, but you have to have plenty of concrete, pragmatic ideas that bring hope and change to life.”

Or, in the blunter words of Gov. Phil Bredesen, Democrat of Tennessee: “Instead of giving big speeches at big stadiums, he needs to give straight-up 10-word answers to people at Wal-Mart about how he would improve their lives.”

Obama advisers say he has made significant headway defining his positions on issues like tougher trade policies, the links between new energy sources and job creation and projecting American leadership abroad. At the same time, his trip last month to Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe helped reassure voters about his experience, they said, and his agreement to a roll-call vote on Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy at the convention should bring her disappointed supporters into the fold.

Moreover, the Obama campaign has started running negative advertisements against Mr. McCain in battleground states — often without announcing them beforehand. The reason, Obama aides say, is to try to convince voters that Mr. McCain is barely different than President Bush through a day or two of uncontested advertisements — until the Republicans learn about them and begin to counter the ads.

Yet these advisers also acknowledge that the Obama phenomenon — the candidacy that helped inspire record voter registrations and turnout during the primaries — has come down to earth in a divided, economically stressed nation. Even though political analysts say that the economic conditions favor the Democrats in this election, and Mr. Bush’s unpopularity could hurt Republicans, Mr. Obama has not broken away from Mr. McCain in polling — a reflection, in part, of the huge numbers of undecided voters across party lines.

“Democrats should take a deep breath and realize that there are a group of voters who won’t make up their mind about a candidate until deep in the fall,” said David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager. “And there are 18 states that are battlegrounds for a reason, and they’ll be decided by 2 to 4 points. I don’t care about national polls.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll last month found the race between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain to be a statistical dead heat, not unlike where Senator John Kerry and Mr. Bush stood in a Times/CBS News poll in July 2004. The poll four years ago was conducted after Mr. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, picked Senator John Edwards as his running mate, yet before both the party conventions and the most intense period of political attacks on Mr. Kerry’s war service record as skipper of a Swift boat in Vietnam.

The McCain campaign has sought to turn Mr. Obama’s celebrity against him by portraying the freshman senator as out of his depth in crises like Russia’s invasion of Georgia. As Mr. Obama was in Hawaii last week, Mr. McCain presented himself as a man-at-the-ready, opining daily about Russia, as well as repeatedly invoking action verbs like “drill” in pledging to address high fuel prices.

To a considerable extent, political analysts say, the closeness of the race at this stage reflects the fact that many voters are not paying attention to it, after the long, wearying primary season. Many Democrats pointed to the election of 1980 when voters, choosing between a relatively inexperienced former governor, Ronald Reagan, and an unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter, finally flocked to Mr. Reagan at the end after resolving whatever qualms they had about him.

But some Republicans disputed that analogy, saying the difficulty Mr. Obama faces getting traction in public opinion polls reflects the country’s reservations about this relative newcomer to national politics — both because he has little experience in national security but also, inevitably, because of his race.

“I think Senator Obama is a motivational speaker, but at the end of the day I don’t think that will translate into votes, and certainly not the image of strength that Ronald Reagan had,” said Jim Greer, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

“Florida has not yet been locked down by either candidate, or all but won by either candidate, but I think Obama’s inability to prove his experience or prove that he owns a political issue far more than McCain is a real problem for him,” Mr. Greer said.

In response, several Democrats said that choosing a seasoned party leader as his running mate would help Mr. Obama in the fall if he is unable to fully allay voters’ uncertainty that a one-term senator is ready for the presidency.

“The one area he still needs credibility in is experience, and picking an Evan Bayh or a Joe Biden as vice president would help a lot with that,” said John B. Breaux, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana. “It wouldn’t be bad if he came out early and said who his secretary of defense and secretary of state would be — that would address and stabilize the concerns about his experience.”

Mr. Obama and his aides made several strategic decisions this summer that had clear payoffs, yet also carried some risks that could play out in the general election.

He quit the public campaign finance system and built a formidable bank account for his campaign, while the Clintons and their supporters still smarted from her loss and grew frustrated that he did not do more to help pay down her campaign debt. He traveled overseas for a week, and was widely praised for his statesmanlike bearing, yet Republicans derided him as vainglorious for holding a huge rally in Berlin. And while Mr. Obama kept a low profile during his Hawaiian vacation, Mr. McCain sought to burnish his image on national security by responding to the Georgian crisis.

Some Democrats said Mr. Obama must still demonstrate that he would be a more effective president than Mr. McCain, and that he could unite the Democratic Party before its convention. Jane Kidd, the party leader in Georgia — where Mr. Obama is hoping black support will help him succeed where other northern Democratic nominees have failed — said Mr. Obama had a good deal more work to do to win over Clinton supporters as well as white voters who are loath to support a black candidate.

“In rural parts of Georgia and the South, there is still some fear about people who look different from themselves,” Ms. Kidd said. “And there’s also healing left to do among women who wanted to see the day that a woman was elected president,”

Mr. Bredesen, of Tennessee, said that while the Democrats had little chance of carrying his state — the Obama camp is sending Mr. Bredesen to campaign in other states — Mr. Obama could still take steps to appeal to undecided Democrats there that might increase his chances elsewhere.

“I would really like to see him do things in Tennessee that would help in other working-class and blue-collar places, like Ohio,” Mr. Bredesen said. “Job security and health care are huge here. He needs to come to the aisle of Home Depot and show them that a Harvard graduate — which I am as well — knows how to help them.”

Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado, the host of next week’s Democratic National Convention, said Mr. Obama needed to hone and amplify his plan to create more jobs if he wants to woo undecided independent voters, who make up the largest bloc of the electorate in the swing state.

“His message is the right one, but he needs to turn up the volume and sharpen it a bit because these are voters who care a great, great deal about the future of the economy,” Mr. Ritter said. “He has to convince them he is ready for that huge task.”

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