OBAMA: In the Weeks to Come, A Costly Battle on Two Fronts

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addresses his supporters from San Antonio after Tuesday's primary election results filter in. Video by AP
By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

With losses in three out of four primaries yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his campaign face a scenario that a barrage of advertising, phone calls and door-knocking could not avert -- a protracted, two-front war against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Even before the polls opened, campaign officials were dreading an outcome that would keep Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the race at least through the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. Those seven weeks will cost Obama at least $10 million, and possibly much more, campaign aides say, as he battles a rejuvenated Clinton who will have every incentive to try to force him into a major mistake.

Obama aides also expect to take concentrated fire from McCain (Ariz.) and his Republican allies, who have already begun raising questions about the 46-year-old Democratic senator's credibility, authenticity and even his patriotism.

For months before his victory in Iowa, doubters questioned whether Obama had the stomach to deliver the blows necessary to wear down Clinton's advantages. Now, the question is whether he can take a punch -- "and you know they will be coming," said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), a Clinton supporter.

Some Obama supporters are increasing pressure on him to shift tactics, frame more sharply his criticism of his opponents and begin inoculating himself from the GOP attacks, but Obama remains reluctant to change the approaches that he still thinks will secure him the nomination. "I have said consistently that we do things differently," Obama said. "It's worked for us so far. And I'm not going to do things that I'm not comfortable in doing."

To be sure, Obama campaign aides think the defeats yesterday in Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas will not alter his path to the Democratic nomination. Under the Democratic Party's system of distributing delegates proportionately, Obama will maintain a lead in pledged delegates, and any diminishment of that delegate lead is likely to be recouped in Saturday's Wyoming caucuses and next Tuesday's Mississippi primary.

"No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead we had this morning," Obama said last night in San Antonio, "and we are on our way to winning this nomination."

Obama aides stressed that the campaign will not be drawn into a fight for Pennsylvania on Clinton's terms: an expensive, all-out battle focused on her. Instead, the campaign's main target will be McCain -- a point underscored by Obama when he declared himself "ready to start a great debate about the future of the country with a man who loves his country and served it bravely."

But Democratic leaders outside the campaign are worried that a candidate who cruised through his only Senate campaign, in 2004, does not know what is about to hit him. Republicans are already planting the seeds for a negative campaign designed to make one overarching point, said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama supporter and informal adviser: This man is not who you think he is.

"You have to question whether he is equipped to deal with the complex and serious issues that are facing the nation," said Danny Diaz, the Republican National Committee's communications director.

Republicans such as Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.) have used Obama's decision not to wear an American flag on his lapel to question his patriotism. Virtually every day, the Republican Jewish Coalition sends e-mails to Jewish voters questioning Obama's commitment to Israel. And darker e-mail and Internet campaigns continue to falsely suggest that Obama is everything from a Muslim to a terrorist sympathizer.

McCain has already made clear how he will try to brand Obama if they are opponents in November, drawing on the Illinois Democrat's Senate votes on abortion, taxes and guns as evidence that he is out of the mainstream.

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