By Alec MacGillis and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 2, 2008
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.
After a heavy emphasis on the West Coast this week, Clinton will seek to maintain her national lead between now and Tuesday with a whirlwind travel schedule that extends from Missouri to Massachusetts and is capped off with a 90-minute "national town hall meeting" conducted via satellite Monday night. Her campaign also believes that, with her performance in Thursday's debate, the senator from New York moved past questions about her husband's role in the campaign and their approach to African American voters, and is now running on comfortable ground -- the issues of health care and the economy.
Still, Clinton strategists are not planning on seeing the nomination contest end on Feb. 5. They are looking ahead to March 4, when both Ohio (161 delegates) and Texas (228 delegates) vote, as the date that could be decisive.
Obama is hardly lacking for public exposure, and he is not relying only on his personal appeals to get voters to the polls. He has well-developed organizations making phone calls and home visits in nearly all of the Feb. 5 states, a growing list of prominent surrogates to campaign on his behalf, and enough money to blanket the country with television ads.
But along the trail there are signs of the ground that Obama has to make up with many voters who have had little experience in casting a meaningful vote in the primaries and have only recently trained their minds on their choices.
In Phoenix, Cynthia and Stuart Preston said that as they were driving to Obama's rally with their children, they quizzed each other to come up with three of the candidate's major platform planks. To their surprise, they couldn't think of them. Despite that, Cynthia Preston said she is supporting Obama. She was drawn, she said, by the "popular movement" behind him.
"I don't know if he has enough time to detail [his plans in all Feb. 5 states], but if you care enough, you can do the research on your own," she said.
Aware that many voters still have basic holes in their knowledge of his background, Obama is doing his best to fill them, making sure at nearly every stop to mention details such as his years as a community organizer, the death of his mother at age 53 and the fact that he is a church-going Christian, no matter what the false rumors circulated by e-mail might say. He takes time to describe the family history that led him to where he is today.
"My own family's journey moved west -- from Kansas, where my grandparents met and married, and my mother was born; to the Pacific Coast after World War II; and then across an ocean to Hawaii," he told his audience in Denver.
At that event, supporter Becky Bowman, of Lakewood, said before Obama's speech that she figured voters in Colorado could get enough information about Obama on their own. But after witnessing him bring a diverse crowd of thousands to its feet with his characteristically rousing pitch, she wondered about the shortcomings of the rushed itinerary.
Voters "need to know the magic. You can't do that through little soundbites," she said. "It's a problem."
MacGillis is traveling with the Obama campaign. Kornblut is traveling with the Clinton campaign.