Obama’s next move: to the center

With his lead over McCain in the polls now gone, the Democratic nominee must woo independents.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Undecided: College student Paul Weskalnies, getting his hair cut in Golden, Colo., is leaning toward the GOP, but not enthusiasically.

Denver – No matter how big (or small) the postconvention bounce for Barack Obama, the newly minted Democratic presidential nominee has his work cut out for him.

His steady, summer-long lead of 4 to 6 points all but evaporated in the run-up to the Democratic convention, as Republican rival John McCain went on the attack. Now Senator Obama must not only solidify his Democratic base and keep wooing recalcitrant supporters of former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, he must also reach into the nation’s political center, where the election will be won. Any notion that the Democrats would coast to victory has vanished.

“The history of presidential elections in this country, for a very long time, has been that they’re relatively close,” said chief Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking at a Monitor breakfast Thursday. “We had no illusions that this was going to be anything but close.”

Still, as with two years ago, when voters swept the Republicans out of power in Congress, the playing field remains tilted toward the Democrats.

Some 35 percent of voters self-identify as independent, according to the Gallup poll. But in stark contrast to the 2004 presidential race, where party identification was roughly tied, Democrats now enjoy a significant lead over Republicans in party ID – 36 percent to 29 percent. And that represents a narrowing of the gap compared with previous weeks, Gallup notes.

So even though Senator McCain is getting more support from his base (87 percent) than is Obama (78 percent), that gap is not as daunting as it may seem. All Obama has to do is match the percentages Democratic nominee John Kerry won four years ago, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and he will win the election by 3 percentage points, because of his party’s expanded base, Democratic strategist James Carville said at a Monitor luncheon Wednesday.

As convention week progressed, Democrats began to shift the campaign from a referendum on Obama to a contest between two men with starkly different personas, records, and policy positions. The marquee speakers of Wednesday night, former President Clinton and Obama running mate Joseph Biden, teed up harsh critiques of McCain.

“What you want in this situation is a choice,” says Democratic communications consultant Peter Fenn. “Hello, John McCain. Three-hundred billion more in tax breaks for the wealthy. More Iraqs and Afghanistans. We’ve been soft on McCain. Democrats shouldn’t be in such a defensive mood.”

The challenge for Obama is to extend the positive feelings from his convention through next week’s Republican convention, and into the final two-month sprint to Nov. 4. McCain is reportedly set to announce his running mate on Friday morning at a rally in Ohio – an apparent effort to step on any convention bounce Obama gets and divert media attention back to the GOP’s message.

But at least one story line from the Democrats’ week in the spotlight appears to have peaked: the Clinton-Obama soap opera. Predictions of massive street protests by unhappy Hillary Clinton supporters failed to materialize, with marchers numbering a little over 1,000, not the thousands some had predicted. And Bill and Hillary Clinton’s convention speeches were met enthusiastically by the party faithful. Senator Clinton herself, standing with the New York delegation, halted the roll-call vote Wednesday, allowing for Obama’s nomination by acclamation.

The media hyped the Clinton-Obama drama “way, way, way, way too much,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “If you watched it on TV, it was being played out as a personal psychodrama involving the Clinton family and Obama family, and the truth is that’s not what it is.”

The test of Obama-Clinton unity will come in the weeks ahead. If both Clintons stump for Obama, as promised, that will put the feud stories to rest.

Undecided voters and those soft in their support of one or another candidate will also face pressure to come to a decision – especially in crucial swing states, such as Colorado. Paul Weskalnies, a student at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., isn’t even sure if he’s going to vote for either major-party candidate, since his favorite, the Libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, suspended his campaign.
Mr. Weskalnies thinks he’ll start researching his options in late September or early October. His biggest issues are the Iraq war (he favors the US staying there) and “big government.” Between the two major parties, he leans Republican, “but they’re still ‘governmentalists,’ ” he says.

Glenn Brand, a registered Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter from Wheat Ridge, Colo., plans to wait until after the debates to make a decision. Obama gives him pause “because of his inexperience,” says the hardware-store worker. But “he’s going to have a good vice president, so that’s in his favor, for sure.” He says he hasn’t followed McCain that closely. “I just know he’s a little older, but he should have experience there, too.”

Bob List, a retired engineer in Golden, Colo., calls himself an independent. He started out inclined toward McCain, but the more he has heard Obama speak, the more he is leaning toward him. “His charisma has a purpose,” says Mr. List.

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