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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)

Strategists for all of the campaigns agree that voters' opinions of the candidates are undefined and that a clearer picture is expected to emerge after Labor Day, when voters will be paying more attention.

Democratic advisers in campaigns other than Clinton's say history is on their side: Only twice in the past eight contested primaries has the Democrat leading at this stage gone on to win the nomination.

In June 2003, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut led the field of Democratic candidates with 20 percent of the support in a Gallup poll; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri came in second, with 15 percent; and the eventual nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, was in third place with 13 percent. And Dean, who is now chairman of the Democratic Party, led both national and state polls in December 2003, only to lose primary after primary over the next few months.

Yet some strategists see similarities between Obama and Dean -- as well as former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.), who ran a losing campaign against then-Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic primaries.

Like Dean and Bradley, Obama is strongest among elites, whom other Democrats derisively call "latte liberals" -- a group that voices strong opinions but is not big enough to win him the nomination. Polls show that Obama is ahead of Clinton among voters with college degrees, while Clinton has a huge lead among voters who make less than $35,000 and those who have graduated only from high school.

Like his unsuccessful predecessors, Obama is more popular among men and independents, rather than with the women and working-class voters who generally drive the nominating process. But one major difference is that Obama has strong numbers among African Americans, about 40 percent of whom are backing him, putting him in a tie with Clinton.

"The people who he is getting money from are more elite Democrats who have more disposable income to send him," said pollster Mark Mellman, a Democrat who is not working for any of the campaigns. "That is a constituency that can create a lot of buzz but is not sufficient to win a nomination."

To help address that trend, Obama's campaign is doing some retooling: He is focusing more on the economy, which was the subject of a town hall meeting in Iowa last week as well as recent events in South Carolina.

Obama has made other subtle changes as well. He recently pulled one of his closest aides, longtime spokesman Robert Gibbs, out onto the campaign trail to help sharpen his message. Aides are working to get the occasionally long-winded senator to speak in shorter, crisper sentences, particularly in debates and town hall meetings.

After spending months organizing major rallies, the campaign is beginning to shift toward smaller venues, giving Obama a chance to interact personally with every voter at times, a tactic Clinton has adopted in Iowa. In particular, Obama will make more stops in diners and small venues in New Hampshire, where a small-town feel is prized.

Advisers have also discussed Obama's going to Europe to help define his foreign policy record.

Yet the campaign rejects questions about whether it needs to do something different to win.

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