On a Mission to Translate Belief Into Reality

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.

In Boise, Debbi Taylor, a 50-year-old court clerk, said she drove six hours through bad weather from Ogden, Utah, to see Obama. "When my kids are excited and vote early and e-mail me to tell me about it, that's change in the world. That's something," she said.

In Minneapolis, Kevin Worden, a Habitat for Humanity director, gawked at the sight of the city's basketball arena packed to the rafters. "It's a snowball running down a steep hill and picking up all along," he said.

And in St. Louis, some of the 20,000 who attended a rally at the city's domed football stadium marveled that the event had drawn far more people than the city's popular Mardi Gras celebration the same night.

"Look at these numbers!" Helen Douglas-Taylor, a teacher, exclaimed. "We're just ready as a nation for something fresh, and he's fresh."

Exit polls drew a portrait of the voters who did not necessarily feel the same way, and showed that they mirrored the patterns in Obama's New Hampshire and Nevada defeats, despite the campaign's concerted attempts to overcome them.

He trailed by wide margins among women in the states he lost, despite attempts to feature women in his ads, campaign appearances with prominent women endorsers, and a high-profile rally in Los Angeles with Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver.

He trailed among Latino voters, despite a last-minute effort to educate them about his past advocacy for Hispanic causes, aided by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose family remains popular in the Hispanic community. And he trailed among working-class voters, despite a greater emphasis in his stump speech and ads on his economic proposals and his modest upbringing.

Meanwhile, he fared better than Clinton with men, African Americans, higher-income voters and independents.

Here and there last week, amid all the applause, there were supporters who recognized the downside of this profile in primaries where women and rank-and-file Democrats dominated, and where Latinos would play a crucial role.

In New Mexico, Pete Sheehey, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that when he canvassed for Obama, he found many non-Democrat supporters who could not vote for Obama under the state's primary rules. "It's frustrating: So many independents and Republicans say, 'I would vote for him if I could.' "

Some headway was made in the target groups. In Wilmington, Debbie Demeter, a teacher, came to see Obama because she was undecided. "He's a very elegant speaker and a sign of hope and change for the future. He's young and can bring forth some new ideas," she said. "But it's going to be hard, because I'd love to see the first woman president."

After the rally, she said Obama had wowed her and won her over. But she was just one voter, one of the relatively few, in the mad 10-day rush, who saw the candidate and his movement up close.

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