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Left lacks leverage to stop Obama's rightward tack

His backtracking on a government-surveillance bill has outraged the liberal blogosphere.

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Arianna Huffington, doyenne of the liberal blogosphere, is less charitable. "The Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake," she writes. "Tacking to the center is a losing strategy."

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She cites the unsuccessful centrist approaches of recent Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination. In the case of Senator Clinton, her centrism was more pronounced in foreign affairs – most notably, her 2002 vote to authorize military action against Iraq – but that was enough to jump-start a successful insurgency by Obama, who has opposed the war from the start.

Then there's the other Clinton – Bill – who won two terms as president as a centrist.

Liberals argue that Bill Clinton won both contests with pluralities, winning in 1992 with just 43 percent of the vote (because of the strong independent candidacy of Ross Perot) and 49 percent in 1996. With no strong third-party candidate on the horizon in 2008, chances are the winner will need a majority of the vote. While most national polls show Obama with a modest lead over McCain, few have shown him winning a majority.

Still, these are the dog days of the campaign. Many voters have not tuned in yet and won't until the end-of-summer conventions, if not the final days of the campaign. This is the time when campaigns test out themes and fine-tune their positions before heading into the fall push.

So far, polls show no obvious movement of voters based on Obama's repositioning. But independent pollster John Zogby sees a particular risk among young voters, who have turned out in droves for Obama and may be disillusioned by his display of old-style politics.

In the end, though, this election will be fought and won in the middle, says Mr. Zogby. "So both Obama and McCain are going to be in the middle."

For Obama, how he gets there could be key to whether he keeps the faith with his supporters. Some issues matter to the left more than others.

"Labor is frustrated about NAFTA and the civil-liberties groups are frustrated about FISA," says Mr. Stoller. "There's also dismay about his decision on the death penalty and sort of some dismay about his faith-based initiatives. But the real core frustration is coming from the NAFTA and FISA decisions, because those are actually reversals."

On FISA, the "netroots" opposition is especially fierce; Obama's backtrack on the filibuster represents a capitulation to the conventional wisdom on national security and to big business, activists say. But in a twist reflective of the Obama campaign's embrace of the Internet, the senator's own Web portal – my.barackobama.com – has become the virtual gathering spot for opposition to his new FISA position. A group called "Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right" was started on June 25 and by July 3 was the largest group on the website.

The Obama campaign says it welcomes the feedback, and is happy to provide a Web vehicle even for critics. But the moment of truth will come when Obama faces the FISA vote, scheduled this week.

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