On a Mission to Translate Belief Into Reality

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addresses his supporters after the Super Tuesday primary election results filter in. Video by AP
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

CHICAGO, Feb. 5 -- The crowds boggle the mind, and the fervor verges on the religious: "We believe!" the 17,000 people jamming Hartford's civic center started chanting Monday. There were 13,000 in Boise, lining up in the cold at daybreak in a state where only 5,000 voted in the Democratic caucuses four years ago. And 20,000 converging on a downtown square in Wilmington, Del., on Super Bowl Sunday, like nothing that small city had seen in years.

There is, without doubt, a nationwide wave building behind Sen. Barack Obama, one given new life by his win in South Carolina 10 days ago, his forceful victory speech and the Kennedy family endorsements that followed, and his campaign's record-shattering fundraising last month. But the Super Tuesday primaries offered a reminder of the distance Obama must yet travel and the time he needs -- but might not have -- to translate the euphoria of packed basketball arenas into hard numbers at the voting booth.

Obama fared better in the 22-state crush than appeared possible a couple weeks ago, when he was coming off two straight losses in Nevada and New Hampshire and facing the prospect of having to compete in a slew of states against a better-known candidate with widespread establishment backing.

The Illinois senator won his home state, as well as Georgia, Alabama, Delaware, Minnesota, Connecticut, Kansas, North Dakota, Colorado, Alaska, Missouri, Utah and Idaho.

Yet he fell well short of the clear win that some of his supporters could not help but fantasize about as he shot up in the polls in the past week. He lost in New Jersey and Massachusetts after appearing to threaten upsets in the two states, where Clinton maintained solid leads until recently.

The campaign seems aware of the challenge facing it. No longer does it allow itself to be lulled into complacency by the sight of big crowds, as it might have been in the closing days before the New Hampshire primary.

Trying to limit expectations in recent days, campaign officials and Obama himself said they were encouraged by the enthusiasm they were finding on the trail. But they also acknowledged that millions of other voters either had no interest in Obama or would not be able to see him, given the constraints of the compressed schedule of 22 states to cover in 10 days.

Obama directly acknowledged the need to broaden the campaign's reach in his speech to supporters here tonight, addressing "all those Americans who have yet to join this movement and yet still hunger for change.

"They know in their gut that we can do better than we're doing," he said. But "they are afraid, they've been taught to be cynical. They're doubtful it can be done. I'm here to say tonight to all those who harbor those doubts: We need you. We need you to help us through."

The campaign is betting on closing the gap further in the next week, when there are six primaries or caucuses, in places where Obama is fairly well-positioned: Maine, Louisiana, Washington state, Virginia, Maryland and the District. And the campaign says it will have the time to do the more intense kind of campaigning it prefers in big states that do not vote until next month, such as Ohio and Texas.

"This was always going to be a fairly daunting day for us," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "We are looking forward to moving beyond it, because we get to go to states in smaller bite sizes, where we can actually get in there and campaign and have the focus be a little more intensive."

Still, for all the campaign's caveats, there is a hard-to-explain disconnect between the muddled results and the near-delirious enthusiasm at Obama's recent rallies, which far exceeds anything at Clinton's smaller, more sedate events.

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