By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 23, 2008
In the opening weeks of the general-election campaign, Sen. Barack Obama has moved aggressively to shape his campaign and offered a clear road map for the kind of candidate he is likely to become in the months ahead: an ambitious gamer of the electoral map, a ruthless fundraiser and a scrupulous manager of his own biography in the face of persistent concerns about how he is perceived.
Obama's early maneuvers suggest a clear understanding within the campaign of his strengths and weaknesses. He bought air time in 18 states, a sure sign that he hopes to expand Democrats' traditional electoral map. He opted out of the public campaign-financing system -- revealing his determination to press his financial advantage, even at the cost of handing his Republican opponent the opportunity to raise questions about the sincerity of his rhetoric on reform.
And with a first ad that delves into his biography, Obama acknowledged ongoing concerns among his advisers that voters do not know whether he shares the values and beliefs of ordinary Americans, a potentially critical vulnerability. The ad speaks to the reality that enough questions were raised about Obama through the long nomination battle that he needs to address them. The campaign's concerns include both taking on misinformation -- such as the persistent claim that he is Muslim when he is in fact a Christian -- and framing a biography unlike that of any nominee in the modern era.
"Any of the attempts to describe him inaccurately he takes head-on with the new commercial," said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest friends and confidants. "You begin a new campaign with an introduction. You can't presume that everybody was paying attention during the primary season. So let's start with basics. He describes his roots, his philosophy, his love of country. That's a really good start."
Jim Margolis, Obama's media adviser, said that, despite the long primary season, Obama still is not well known to voters in many parts of the country. "They don't know the full story," he said. "They don't have a complete sense of what motivates him, what are the biographical points of his life that have made him the person that he is today and what he wants to do as president."
Margolis said the campaign is primarily working to fill an information vacuum, but he acknowledged that combating rumors that could endanger Obama's candidacy is also part of the motivation behind the opening ad.
"There are just a lot of big holes there for a lot of people," he said. "But, to be sure, we live in a different world than we lived in before. This campaign is only possible because of the Internet, because of the technology, because we could raise a couple of hundred million dollars [from] 1.5 million Americans who on average gave less than $100 each. Could not have happened 10 years ago. On the other hand, you're constantly dealing with the misinformation that can spread quickly, where in 24 hours you can get millions of hits."
Even as the campaign seeks to take control of Obama's image, hammering home the message that his is a thoroughly American story, the decision last week to opt out of the public financing system -- and forgoing more than $84 million in campaign funds -- added a new dimension to his profile as a politician. And it appeared to immediately cut both ways. Sen. John McCain pounced on the decision, questioning Obama's character. "He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people," McCain told reporters Thursday, citing Obama's initial pledge to stay within the existing campaign finance rules.
Yet Obama's advocates also argue a positive lesson about their candidate's character can be drawn from the decision: that Obama is willing to take political risks in order to win. His toughness as a politician was often questioned during the Democratic primary, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cast herself as the only Democrat able to do hand-to-hand combat with Republicans. "People and commentators have been saying we know Barack is hopeful and that he appeals to a broad cross section of the public," Jarrett said. "But perhaps people didn't know how tough he is. He's been saying all along, don't confuse hope with naivete."
If some Republicans rue the swift and calculated nature they say characterizes Obama's early steps, his campaign advisers say they have needed to move quickly to make up for the months spent waging the extended primary race. They cast the decision on public financing, for example, as motivated partly by timing, with just four full months left until Election Day to provide voters with the vision of Obama they hope to establish.
The scope of Obama's first advertising buy sent an unmistakable signal to McCain and the GOP that, at least initially, the senator from Illinois will invest money in states no Democrat has won in years, including Georgia, Indiana and Alaska. A recent poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed Obama within two points of McCain in Alaska, although well below 50 percent. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe predicted that Indiana "is going to be a dogfight" in the fall, even though Obama lost the primary there in May.
The content of the ad drew plaudits even from some Republicans for its focus on values, tax cuts and welfare reform. "He is not trying to cobble together the old Democratic coalition of interest groups and get 48 percent like John Kerry," Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant, said in an e-mail message. "This is not three yards and a cloud of dust. This is an aggressive leap across the 50-yard line to play on Republican turf."
Throughout the past week, other elements of Obama's aggressive outreach were on display. Shifting increasingly toward general-election issues, he met with military officers and a newly formed national security working group. He hit McCain over a secret meeting the Republican held with Hispanics in Chicago -- a hit that is part of his effort to win over a group that backed Clinton overwhelmingly in the primary and could be key to helping him reshape his electoral opportunities to include Western states.
At his meeting with 16 Democratic governors on Friday, the participants, including some of Clinton's most politically important backers, gushed about the degree to which his campaign staff had sought their input, inviting them to Chicago for dinner, putting them onstage with Obama at a briefing and asking each governor to bring in a top political aide who can be involved in planning as the campaign progresses.
"This isn't about 'I'm coming to your state, and can you go do a photo op,' " said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Another Democratic governor, Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, said the level of contact from the Obama campaign has surpassed any she has ever received from a presidential candidate. "We've never been reached out to in this way," said Granholm, a former Clinton supporter.
Given that he is running in a year in which the political climate is as favorable for the Democrats as it has been in any year in recent memory, one question the Obama team must grapple with is why the presumptive Democratic nominee does not have a more substantial lead over McCain in early polls.
Top advisers point to several factors. First, they acknowledge that the long nomination battle has left scars within the party. Right now, polls show that Obama is winning a smaller share of Democratic support than McCain is winning of Republican support. Campaign officials expect that to change as the summer progresses.
But they also acknowledge that McCain runs better with independent voters than anyone else the GOP might have nominated. By the fall they hope to have drawn enough distinctions with McCain to make those independents think twice about their support for him.
Finally, they argue, they have not yet begun to compete for Republican support, particularly among women who favor abortion rights or GOP voters disaffected with President Bush. In the end, they believe that whichever candidate wins the highest percentage of voters in the other party is likely to be the next occupant of the White House.