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Obama's Red-State Prospects Unclear

In making her case for electability, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton touts her popularity among women and Hispanics.
In making her case for electability, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton touts her popularity among women and Hispanics. (By Rick Gershon -- Getty Images)
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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

For Democrats desperate to reclaim the White House, the numbers have been tantalizing.

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In winning Tuesday's primary in the key swing state of Wisconsin, Sen. Barack Obama drew support from tens of thousands of Republicans and independents. He pulled off the same feat in his landslide victory in the Virginia primary the week before, suggesting he could win the state in November. In South Carolina, he had more votes than the top two Republican contenders put together; in Kansas, his total topped the overall GOP turnout.

All along, Obama has argued that he can redraw the political map for Democrats by turning out unprecedented numbers of young voters and African Americans, and by attracting independents and even Republicans with his message of national reconciliation. But the picture emerging of his appeal in GOP strongholds and in swing states, even as he widens his delegate lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), is more complex than his claim to broad popularity in "red state" America would have one believe.

Obama (Ill.) posted big wins over Clinton in caucuses in Plains and Mountain states such as Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho, but Republicans in those states scoff at the suggestion that victories in the small universe of Democrats there translate into strength in November. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, Obama lost by wide margins to Clinton, who lived in nearby Arkansas. He narrowly won the primary in the swing state of Missouri, but did so thanks to the state's solidly Democratic cities, losing its more rural, and more conservative, areas to Clinton.

"If he's the nominee . . . he'll start off with a good urban base, but he'll have to get out and develop these other areas," said former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter, a Democrat and Clinton supporter.

Clinton has been making her own electability case, saying she is more tested against Republican attacks and more able to turn out large numbers of women and Latinos.

In response, Obama says he is likely to pick up most of her supporters in the fall, while many of those now favoring him -- independents, men, young voters and blacks -- may back Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or stay home if she is the nominee.

But he has also offered a more ambitious case for himself. Clinton envisions holding on to the base of blue states and picking up one or two swing states, such as Ohio, Florida or Nevada. Obama has conjured visions of a Reagan-style nationwide sweep, which, he says, would give him the big mandate -- and the big majority in Congress -- to attain the bold goals that skeptics call unrealistic for a young candidate with little Washington experience.

"We aren't going to have 47 percent on one side, 47 percent on the other side, 5 percent in the middle, and they all live in Ohio and Florida and you only campaign in two states," Obama often tells audiences.

His talk of exploding the map has been helped by McCain's emergence as the likely GOP nominee, since McCain has received relatively weak support in many of the red states in which Obama hopes to do well, in the South and Plains. But while Obama has shown an ability to reshape voting patterns, his record in the primaries suggests that he still has a ways to go in making significant inroads in Republican states.

The red states where he has won have tended to be in the Deep South, where victories were based on overwhelming support from African Americans, or in mostly white states in the Midwest and West, where he relied on a core of ardent backers to carry him in caucuses, which favor candidates with enthusiastic supporters. He has not fared as well in areas that fall in between, with populations that are racially diverse but lack a black population large enough to boost Obama to victory.

Some political scientists say this suggests that Obama will have an easier time with white voters in more racially homogeneous GOP-leaning states than in states where a mixed population has introduced a more difficult racial dynamic. The University of Kansas's Burdett Loomis points to Interstate 70, which cuts across Kansas, Missouri and southern Illinois, as a sort of dividing line between the red-state areas to the north, where Obama has done well and those areas where he has struggled.

"You get below I-70, and race may play a role," he said. "You get to southern Missouri, and you're really moving south. And Oklahoma has some of those elements, too."

In both Oklahoma and Tennessee, where Clinton won, an additional factor was that the Democratic establishment was behind her. While Obama had organizations in the states, he did not put in nearly as much effort as he did in red states with caucuses.

McWherter, the former Tennessee governor, said the results in his state clearly showed the limits of Obama's appeal. Obama won the big cities, where Democrats are mostly African American. He also won Williamson County, an affluent Nashville suburb that has voted heavily Republican in recent years, suggesting that Obama might pick up crossover support from wealthy Southerners in the fall.

But, McWherter noted, Obama lost the rest of the state.

The Obama campaign acknowledges its poor performance in areas such as rural Missouri and Tennessee but says that could be overcome with time in a general-election campaign. "He does fairly well with rural voters in certain places, but there's no question that Barack's going to have to get better acquainted with these voters," adviser Steve Hildebrand said.

The campaign points to Virginia as proof that Obama can win white voters in red states. Exit polls show that he won a slight majority of white voters, not just in Northern Virginia but also in the Richmond suburbs and parts of the Shenandoah Valley and Southside.

Less clear is how Obama would fare in other red states that he won in the primary season. Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders (D) said Obama could put his state in play in the fall with huge turnout among blacks and youth. But while that helped him win the primary, when he won 80 percent of black voters, who made up half the primary electorate, it would not be enough in November in a state that overall is more than 70 percent white.

John Bruce, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, said it would be tough to win his state, which has a higher share of black residents than any other state, 37 percent. Obama would need deeply depressed Republican turnout, the votes of almost everyone who backed Clinton in the primary and a big chunk of independents. "He can do it, but it's that shot from half-court," Bruce said.

But Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), one of several prominent red-state leaders to endorse Obama, said she is sure that he would be competitive in a state that George W. Bush carried by 25 points in 2004. "It would be in play for the first time in a very long time," she said. "He is one of those rare talents that taps into a real call to bring us together."

Christian Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, ridiculed the possibility, noting that the Democratic caucus turnout of 37,000, while much higher than normal, was a fraction of the more than 1 million Kansans who vote in presidential elections. "It's pretty laughable that someone with the extremely liberal positions of Barack Obama could actually carry Kansas," he said. "Any interest Barack Obama has from Republicans in Kansas is of a circus nature -- they're curious what the hubbub is all about."

Annabeth Surbaugh, the Republican chairman of Johnson County, a suburb of Kansas City, was less sure, given how Obama had energized young people. "He may take [Kansas], not because he'd take it from Republicans but because he's getting people who haven't been in it before," she said. "I see it as a phenomenon. I wouldn't put money on him, but I wouldn't bet against it, either."


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