Denver – Barack Obama’s campaign Thursday brushed aside questions about its standing among traditional Democrats, saying it would win the presidential election by bringing new voters – particularly young people, blacks, Hispanics, and independents – to the polls this fall.
“There are millions more Democrats today than when this process started and that’s going to be beneficial to us in November,” David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist, said at a breakfast for Senator Obama’s top aides and the media sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
Obama is banking on what his campaign manager David Plouffe called a “pretty significant and meaningful gap in intensity” over Sen. John McCain, a claim buttressed by polls showing higher levels of enthusiasm among Democrats than among Republicans this year.
The aides acknowledged the strength of President Bush’s storied campaign organization in 2004, but asserted that Senator McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, would have a hard time replicating it at a time of conservative disenchantment.
“I’m sure McCain has a list of all the Bush volunteers, but these things are not transferable,” Mr. Plouffe said. He said that unlike the Republican Party, which had all but reached its voter turnout limit in the past two presidential elections, “we think we’ve got a lot more room to grow.”
Mr. Axelrod dismissed the notion that the GOP’s track record of disciplined get-out-the-vote efforts would save McCain’s candidacy. “You can’t reverse eight years of failed policies with 72 hours of field work. It’s just not going to happen.”
When pressed to explain polls showing a tight race against McCain, the Obama aides said the nationwide figures masked the Democratic nominee's strength in swing states needed to pile up a majority of electoral votes.
“One of our strategic goals here is to wake up on the morning of Nov. 4 with as many pathways to 270 electoral votes as possible,” Plouffe said, noting that the campaign had “aggressive field programs” and advertising in 18 states.
All the same, the campaign – perhaps seeking to manage expectations – acknowledged that McCain’s popularity exceeds his party’s and predicted a fierce race to the finish.
“Senator McCain in many ways is living off the fumes of his last campaign and has some appeal to independent voters, and that has benefited him,” Axelrod said. “We came through a hotly contested primary that lasted a long time and that has had some impact on us.… We had no illusions that this would be anything but close.”
“The thing that makes this election different is that the battlefield is different,” he added. “There are many more states in play than there have been in the past.”
Obama, who officially won the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday night, struggled in the primaries with working-class whites, who make up a large share of the electorate in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Asked how he would court those voters in the general election, his aides said they would appeal to people's unease over the economy.
“It’s really very simple,” Axelrod said. “It’s not going well for white working-class or any working-class people in this country, [or] for middle-class people. … People have actually lost ground during the last eight years, years that McCain suggests were years of great economic progress.”
Plouffe urged reporters to probe what he said were McCain’s weaknesses among two other demographic groups: Hispanics and women. The McCain campaign has “huge deficits” among those groups in swing states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, he said. “If he does not correct them, the path is not there for him to win the presidency.”
McCain is expected to announce his vice-presidential pick no later than a noontime event in Dayton, Ohio, Friday. But Obama aides professed no concern that it would change the dynamics of the race. “Whoever he picks doesn’t change the fact that it’s John McCain’s agenda on the ballot,” Plouffe said.
Either way, it was clear that the Obama campaign was sharpening talking points on various McCain running pates. If he chooses former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, says Plouffe, “all he’s done is double down on out-of-touch, being on the side of big corporate special interests – Romney is an expert on things like Cayman Island tax shelters.”
If he picks independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was Democratic Sen. Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, McCain will have to explain the choice of a candidate who “didn’t subscribe to 80 percent of [McCain’s] positions,” Axelrod said. Lieberman, for his part, “will have to explain why he’s willing to abandon all of his principles” to become McCain’s running mate.
The aides said they were not concerned about the persistence of false rumors – on the Internet and talk radio – that Obama is not Christian but Muslim. “We’ve invested time and money and effort in straightening out that misperception,” Axelrod said. “There may be a certain percentage of people who still believe that. The question is whether they’re likely to be our voters in the first place.”
With just one convention night to go, Obama's aides pronounced themselves pleased with previous three days in Denver. “We had specific goals coming into the convention, and one was to give a richer sense of who Barrack Obama is, where he came from, what drives him,” Axelrod said. “We’ve had success in doing that. We wanted define both the stakes and the choice.”
He declined to say how much of a bounce in the polls the campaign expected from the Democratic convention, noting that fast arrival of the Republican National Convention next week might “mute whatever effect there is.”
Polls earlier this month showed that just 1 in 2 voters who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries say they will definitely for Obama. But Axelrod argued Thursday that “unambiguous” convention speeches by Senator Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, should end the “plot of unity versus disunity.”
He said both Clintons would actively campaign for Obama.
The Monitor hosted a similar breakfast with Mr. Romney earlier this week, and plans others, with aides to McCain, at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., next week.