Obama Faces the Test Dean Failed: Broadening Support

Despite a big fundraising edge, Sen. Barack Obama has been unable to close a double-digit deficit in polls.
Despite a big fundraising edge, Sen. Barack Obama has been unable to close a double-digit deficit in polls. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

He raises tens of millions of dollars over a few months. His supporters are passionate, almost fanatical. And his grass-roots movement threatens a more established rival.

A description of Howard Dean in 2003 or Sen. Barack Obama today?

Obama campaign advisers -- many of them campaign veterans who watched Dean's slow rise and rapid descent at close range -- reject the comparison, arguing that their candidate and organization won't repeat the mistakes of the former Vermont governor.

But as Obama has shattered fundraising records over the past few months while continuing to trail Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by double digits in polls, the challenge for the senator from Illinois has become clear: He must turn the intense devotion of his backers into a force that can win primaries, expanding his base of support beyond the narrow band of Democratic elites who backed Dean.

"It looks like a movement candidacy, and it's generating an enormous amount of enthusiasm, excitement and money," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist who was a top adviser to Dean. "The question now -- as in all movements like this -- is whether or not the voters and the votes will follow."

Campaign finance records released Sunday showed the financial juggernaut that is Obama's candidacy: 258,000 individual donors, support from all over the country and $32.8 million raised over the past three months, $10 million more than Clinton raised for the Democratic primary over that period.

Yet Obama trailed Clinton by 16 points when he entered the race in February and by 15 points last month, according to polling by The Washington Post and ABC News.

Senior advisers to Obama say they are not troubled that he has not overtaken Clinton. They talk often about a "sequential strategy" that focuses exclusively on building a robust campaign organization in Iowa, where a caucus victory could provide a springboard to success in the New Hampshire primary and the early nominating contests beyond.

They argue that Obama's potent fundraising -- if managed wisely -- will allow him to compete directly with Clinton in the raft of states holding primaries on Feb. 5. And, they say, he is holding his own in the early-voting states on which his strategy depends.

"The national polls are irrelevant," David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said in an interview last week.

"If they were affecting us -- hurting our ability to raise money or build campaign infrastructures around the country -- maybe we would be concerned, but they're not," Plouffe continued. "History reliably suggests it is not an indicator of how these elections are going to transpire."

Although Clinton has maintained a double-digit lead in many national polls, Cornell Belcher, one of Obama's pollsters, said the race is much closer in the early states where residents know more about Obama.

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