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Downside of Obama Strategy

[Obama strategists figured they could compensate for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strength in large, traditionally Democratic states by focusing their efforts on smaller states, many of which almost always vote Republican in the general election.]
Under the Radar

"I don't buy into this demographic argument," Obama said. "Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia -- in many of these states we've won the white vote and the blue-collar vote and so forth. I think it is very important not to somehow focus on a handful of states because the Clintons say those states are important and that the other states are unimportant."

To be sure, Team Obama's small-state strategy may have been the candidate's only option against a far-better-known opponent, and it has worked. In the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests that Obama's campaign staff had hoped to merely survive, Obama and Clinton just about broke even. He won more delegates in Kansas and Idaho than she won in New Jersey. Her big win in California -- with its net gain of 41 delegates -- was negated by his wins in Georgia and Nebraska.

"Senator Obama went where he had to go," said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), a Clinton backer. "They had a well-thought-out strategic plan, and they carried it out with real discipline."

In the ensuing weeks, Obama appeared to consolidate his support among the rest of the Democratic coalition. He prevailed in the diverse state of Missouri, won over rural and working-class whites in his Virginia and Maryland routs, and then prevailed easily in Wisconsin.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, said the strategy had an upside beyond the compiling of delegates. Obama was building a case with superdelegates that his appeal to nontraditional voters would have a ripple effect down the ballot in swing states such as Colorado and Iowa, where some of those superdelegates will be running for reelection. And by building organizations in all 50 states, Obama can make the case that he has an infrastructure primed and ready for the general election.

Then came Ohio and Texas, and all the old fears of Obama's narrow appeal came flooding back.

"A lot of the states he's winning are states that we're not going to win in November," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), a Clinton supporter. "It's not a strategy that bodes well, in my opinion."

A Clinton campaign memo on Wednesday noted that of the 11 core Republican states that have held primaries or caucuses, Obama has won 10: Utah, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, lost each of these states by 15 points or more.

Obama aides still insist that it is a strategy that will work. Even after Tuesday, when he lost three out of four contests, Obama maintained his delegate lead. Indeed, his strength in the parallel caucuses in Texas may have actually given him more delegates than Clinton, even though she won the popular vote by 51 percent to 47 percent. But his campaign faces a legitimacy test that is beginning to resonate throughout the Democratic establishment: Can Obama win the big prizes?

With Pennsylvania looming, Obama has few good options. Some advisers say he should stick to a plan, hatched before Tuesday's defeats, to spend some time in the next weeks traveling to Europe, Israel and Asia to bolster his credentials for the general election. But if he cedes the state completely, he destroys his strategy of winning big in the small states and staying close in the big ones.

Axelrod and other Obama aides said they have learned their lesson from Tuesday. Rather than accept Pennsylvania as a tiebreaker, they will play down their chances there and keep the focus on states such as North Carolina and Indiana, where they think their chances are better.

Pennsylvania's primary will be followed by contests in West Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky, all of which have similar, lunch-pail demographics. If Clinton enters the summer on a roll, especially in the big states, the superdelegates may no longer feel that backing her would be opposing the will of the voters, an Obama supporter said.

"Superdelegates are politicians. They will not buck the will of the voters," said a superdelegate supporting Obama. "The danger point comes if the superdelegates don't see a vote for Clinton as bucking anyone."

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