What Obama Needs: A Keystone Address

Volunteers at Sen. Barack Obama's campaign office in Philadelphia this week. Pennsylvania's primary is scheduled for April 22.
Volunteers at Sen. Barack Obama's campaign office in Philadelphia this week. Pennsylvania's primary is scheduled for April 22. (By Matt Rourke -- Associated Press)
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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 7, 2008

With arithmetic on his side, Barack Obama still should be heavily favored to win the Democratic presidential nomination. But Obama does have a problem: The world-class orator, attacked by opponents for being all talk and no walk, urgently needs to come up with a new speech.

The Democrats' system of awarding convention delegates on a proportional basis instead of winner-take-all means that Hillary Clinton's net gain in delegates from her victories in Texas and Ohio might not make it into double digits, and in any event won't be more than 15. If, as expected, Obama wins in Wyoming tomorrow and Mississippi on Tuesday, we'll be right back where we were before the latest Clinton renaissance.

There must be Clinton campaign staffers who have sore backs from moving those heavy goal posts so often. Back when Obama was winning 11 primaries and caucuses in a row, the Clinton camp maintained that the whole contest was about delegates, not momentum. But since Tuesday, when Clinton won three out of four states, the delegate count is being dismissed as a mere formality. The way to assess the race, say Clinton's backers, is to look at momentum.

But it's an odd kind of momentum that we're being asked to appreciate. Apparently, the contests in Wyoming and Mississippi won't count if Obama wins them, because that's what everyone expects. The April 22 primary in Pennsylvania will definitely count if Clinton wins, however, even though that's what everyone expects. To paraphrase Orwell, some states are more equal than others.

Clinton spokesman Doug Hattaway went so far as to call Pennsylvania "the new Iowa," suggesting that only then will the campaign really begin. The problem is that people in the old Iowa aren't likely to forget that they already held their caucuses -- or that Obama won. Democrats in other states where Obama was the winner are equally unlikely to be stricken by amnesia. Even if Clinton were to win Pennsylvania, Obama would almost surely go into the convention with more pledged delegates -- those chosen in primaries and caucuses -- than she had.

Clinton would then have to rely on the elected officials and party bigwigs who attend the convention as superdelegates to overturn the wishes of Democrats who stood in line to vote in a primary or gave up an evening to attend a caucus. This would give her the most Pyrrhic of victories -- a nomination, but with a fractured party behind it.

These numbers, then, say that Obama will probably be the nominee. But there are other numbers that say he has a problem.

In Ohio, he was notably weak among white, working-class, non-college-educated voters. According to exit polls, Clinton beat him by only five percentage points among voters whose family income was more than $50,000 a year -- but by 12 points among those with a family income of less than $50,000 a year. And while Obama beat Clinton 51 to 47 percent among voters with a college degree, he lost, 40 to 58 percent, among those who didn't graduate from college.

This pattern was evident in the early primaries that Obama won. It seemed to fade in the Maryland and Virginia contests and was hardly seen at all in Wisconsin. But its reappearance in Ohio not only buoys the Clinton campaign and ensures a fight to the finish but also suggests a promising line of attack for John McCain should Obama win the nomination.

Obama's ability to inspire optimism and hope has been his most effective campaign tool. For some reason, though, he has been less successful in leading working-class whites to share his vision of a post-partisan America. I don't think the main reason is race. I think it's class.

Obama managed to escape the danger of being pigeonholed as a "black candidate" as opposed to a candidate who happens to be black. Now he has to avoid being pigeonholed as some kind of elitist smarty-pants. Republicans must already be dusting off the playbooks they used against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.

Obama will have six long weeks to campaign in Pennsylvania, a state whose demographics are similar to Ohio's -- six weeks to find a way to speak to white, working-class, high school-educated voters about their anxieties and their aspirations. Winning there, even if it's not a mathematical requirement, could sew up the nomination and also reassure superdelegates about his ability to hold on to traditional Democratic constituencies in the fall campaign.

Obama has already demonstrated how much words do matter. Now he needs to find some new ones.

eugenerobinson@ washpost.com

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