By Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 30, 2007
On Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will embark on a four-day campaign swing through Iowa, starting off with events that will mark the fifth anniversary of a speech he gave opposing the war at a rally in Chicago. His advisers have labeled it the "Judgment and Experience Tour," and Obama's success in persuading voters he has both may hold the key to his presidential aspirations.
The tour signals the intensification of Obama's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and a commitment to spend more time in key early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire and fewer days in the Senate, where he will miss virtually all votes next week. And it will also mark increased engagement with his main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Obama's effort comes as Clinton has solidified her position atop the field of Democratic candidates. A race that once was seen largely through the prism of Obama vs. Clinton has evolved into a contest in which Obama finds himself jockeying with former senator John Edwards of North Carolina to be seen as the clear alternative to Clinton.
National polls suggest that Obama has gained no significant ground on Clinton since the race began, and a new survey in New Hampshire showed the gap between the two widening, giving rise to concern even among Obama's supporters that he has not yet found his groove as a candidate.
At the same time, third-quarter fundraising reports, which will be released in the next few days, are expected to show that the novice candidate and first-term senator has raised $75 million or more in his nine months of campaigning. On Thursday, Obama's aides said, the candidate drew more than 20,000 people to a rally in New York's Washington Square Park. And a poll of Iowa Democrats released by Newsweek yesterday showed Obama leading the Democratic field among people likely to attend the caucuses.
Obama advisers remain confident, saying they are laying the groundwork for strong finishes in the early states that will propel Obama to victory.
"Our campaign was never geared and the plan was never written to win the nomination in September and October," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. "It's planned and written to win this in January and February when people vote."
Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said that "there is this fascination in the political community and Washington to treat every day like Election Day."
"It's our view that the election process begins in January," Axelrod said. "I don't think what counts is what you produce in a national poll or transient polls along the way. It's whether you are building a foundation that will produce what you need next year."
Obama has begun to sharpen his criticism of Clinton, something many supporters have been urging. At last week's debate at Dartmouth College, he criticized "Hillary" by name for using a task force that had closed meetings during her health-care reform effort in the 1990s as first lady. In New York the next day, he poked fun at Clinton for not answering a question in the debate about whether the Illinois native would cheer for the Yankees or the Cubs if they both made the World Series, then turned serious in criticizing Clinton for ducking a question about what she would do to reform Social Security.
But Axelrod emphasized that there will be no all-out assault on the New York senator.
"I know there's a tremendous blood lust out there in the political community who want us to be in a steel-cage match with her," he said. "Barack Obama didn't get in this race to tear Hillary Clinton down or anybody else down. He got into the race to lift the country up. No doubt we have differences, and he will draw those differences. But he's going to resist the thirst for gratuitous combat, because that's part of his critique of the political process."
In a campaign that has been defined as a contest between change and experience, Clinton seems to have the advantage. In recent weeks, Obama has retooled his stump speech to more directly address the experience question, casting his opponents as people simply with more "years in Washington." And he will emphasize this point by arguing that it was sound judgment, not deep Washington experience, that led him to oppose the Iraq war, in contrast to Clinton and other Democratic candidates.
Yesterday, Obama responded to former president Bill Clinton's criticism in an interview last week that the senator is too green to be commander in chief. "I remember what was said years ago by a candidate running for president," Obama told a crowd in Concord, N.H. "He said: 'The same old experience is not relevant. You can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience.' Well, that candidate was Bill Clinton, and I think he was absolutely right."
But David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, acknowledges that Obama needs more time to explain why he is qualified for the presidency after only two years in the Senate. "Obviously, there are voters saying Obama is an untraditional candidate," he said. "This is something they're processing. They're probably evaluating him differently, so I think we do have a little bit more work to do than some of the other campaigns."
One of the challenges of his campaign is that on most major issues, Obama and Clinton have little difference in views, one of the reasons Obama has had to rely so much on his initial opposition to the war to distinguish himself from her. His early war opposition remains one of his strongest applause lines on the campaign trail. But even among Democrats who want a quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq, polls show that Clinton is the favored candidate.
Seeking to cast Clinton as a Washington insider, Obama has touted his non-Washington credentials to argue that he can reform a system dominated by lobbyists and special-interest money. But it's not clear how effective that line of criticism has been.
"The lobbyist stuff is inside baseball," said Marilyn Katz, an Obama fundraiser. "The question remains: Who do you believe has the leadership capacity?"
In many ways, the same questions that hovered around Obama's candidacy when he announced last winter remain today. One is whether he can convert the enthusiasm that propelled him unexpectedly from first-term senator to presidential candidate into actual votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Another is whether he can expand his support from a base built on well-educated, relatively affluent Democrats to the kind of broader coalition that has been the hallmark of every winning candidacy in past Democratic races.
Obama advisers said they plan no significant adjustments to their overall strategy but predicted there will be changes around the edges of the campaign. Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of Obama's, has begun to play a more active role inside the campaign. Obama's Senate chief of staff, Pete Rouse, is likely to shift his focus from the Senate to the campaign as the primary-caucus season nears.
And they continue to express confidence in Obama's ability to defy expectations.
"He looks back at his [Senate] primary election in 2004, when he was sitting comfortably in fourth place for a really long time," Gibbs said. "Then the campaign got fully engaged both on the ground and on TV. We all know what happened."