Obama Mines Small, Traditionally Red States

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

TOPEKA, Kan. -- More than just a trip to his Kansas roots, Sen. Barack Obama's visit to his grandfather's home town Tuesday is part of a broad and unorthodox strategy to build support in Republican-dominated states.

In Kansas and Idaho, Utah and Alaska, Obama's goal is to win delegates on Feb. 5 and to convince voters that he can compete where Democrats normally cannot.

It was October when Obama's first paid staffers arrived here -- a state that offers just 32 delegates -- three months before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's earliest organizers. Eighteen Obama workers now cover Kansas, and the Clinton team has three.

Two members of Congress stumped for Obama here last weekend, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union address Monday night, is widely expected to endorse him.

The Obama team hopes his message will connect with Kansas voters weary of the partisanship that not only split Republicans and Democrats, but has divided social conservatives from moderates in the state GOP. While several Democrats have won state races recently, Kansas has not backed a Democrat for president since 1964.

Aside from winning delegates in a nomination battle that could go on for weeks, a central component of Obama's strategy is to attract new voters. Obama television ads have begun to appear in at least 11 Super Tuesday states, including Alabama, New Mexico, Utah, Delaware and Alaska.

"Showing the ability to perform well across the country, particularly against Senator Clinton, who was the inevitable national front-runner for most of the campaign, has great value," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. "If Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, the night of November 3rd we're going to be talking about a lot more states in play than Senator Clinton."

The value of the strategy remains unproven. Every hour and dollar that Obama spends in a place like Kansas is energy and money not spent in states that provide a more traditional path to the nomination. On Super Tuesday, 23 delegates will be in play in Utah and 55 in Colorado, a pittance compared with California's 370 and New York's 232. Even if Obama does well in the smaller states, he will be waging a war of perception if Clinton does better in the major battlegrounds.

Obama also must contend with a question his troops faced in earlier contests: How will a campaign that relies on converts and new faces compare with the Clinton strategy, which focuses on unions and other party regulars experienced in nomination battles?

"Probably the people who are organizing the best and helping us the most are the labor union people and also some of the regular Democrats who have always been there," said Clinton Kansas co-chair Dan Lykins, the state party treasurer since 1992. "I know that when they say they're going to work, they will. These are the same active Democrats who have been helping our party for 20 or 30 years."

The Clinton campaign tends to dismiss the Obama strategy as making a virtue out of necessity.

"It's very hard to gain a big advantage in small states," said one Clinton strategist, who noted that Clinton is concentrating her early fire on four states -- California, New York, New Jersey and Arkansas -- that will produce 44 percent of the Feb. 5 delegates. She will go head-to-head with Obama in a string of sizeable states, while limiting her ground efforts elsewhere.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company