Obama Is Racing Against the Clock

By Alec MacGillis and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 2, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE, Feb. 1 -- Sen. Barack Obama has two opponents: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the clock, which is rapidly running down.

With three days to go before Super Tuesday, when roughly half the delegates in the Democratic presidential contest will be awarded, Obama is racing around the country, still trying to introduce himself to voters, speed-dating style.

On Tuesday, he touched down in his grandfather's home town, El Dorado, Kan., where many residents did not realize until recently -- if at all -- that Obama has Kansas roots. From there, it was on to big rallies in Kansas City, Mo.; Denver; and Phoenix, followed by Los Angeles, where he tried during an hour in East L.A. to make an impression on Hispanic voters who know little about him. On Friday: Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Boise.

Polling and election results so far suggest that the more time Obama has to present himself to voters, the better he fares. In each of the first four states where voting was sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, Clinton maintained essentially level support in polls in the months leading up to the contests, while Obama saw a steady upward trajectory the more he campaigned. In Florida, by contrast, where the candidates did not campaign after the DNC punished the state for moving its primary to January, Clinton soundly defeated Obama, offering a rough gauge on how much the senator from Illinois relies on voter contact.

The compressed primary calendar presents a challenge for all of the remaining candidates, as they try to visit as many as possible of the more than 20 states holding elections or caucuses on Tuesday. But the time crunch is particularly acute for Obama, who, for all the hype around his candidacy, remains far less well known than Clinton. Obama vaulted into contention against her by spending week upon week in Iowa before the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. He engaged in an intensive grass-roots effort and visited the smallest towns and the most remote county fairgrounds to introduce himself to voters, who rewarded him with a big win over his rivals.

Now, with far less time and broader territory to cover, he must make do with a radically truncated version of that outreach, relying on a single final visit to big cities to win over voters to whom he remains little more than a first-term senator with an exotic name and a reputation for oratory.

His efforts appear to be paying off, as his standing in polls inches closer and closer to Clinton's. The question is whether he has enough time to make up the gap.

"The schedule is compressed, so no doubt Senator Clinton has an advantage going into February 5 states," Obama said during one leg of his travel this week. "She's better known, and I'm still being introduced to a lot of casual voters in the other states."

The lack of time concerns Obama's rank-and-file supporters in the Feb. 5 states, who see him packing arenas this week -- 15,000-plus in Denver, 13,000 in Phoenix -- yet know that most of those turning out are the converted and that countless more undecided voters will not see Obama make his case in person.

"It worries me. Everyone in Arizona ought to see what we saw today," said Tim Nelson, a lawyer for the state government, after bringing his 9-year-old daughter to see the candidate in Phoenix.

If a few extra weeks would help Obama, the opposite is true for Clinton, whose advisers would be happy with just a few extra days, they said in interviews Friday.

Clinton at one point declared that she would have the race wrapped up by Feb. 5. Now, her strategists concede, as Obama appears to be closing the gap with her, she needs the days until then to keep pushing her message -- outreach that includes visiting critical states and luring former supporters of John Edwards, who ended his candidacy this week. "There are a lot of places to touch," one strategist said.

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