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THE DELEGATES

For Those From Swing States, The Watchword Is . . . Worry

The Democratic Party presents itself to the nation this week at the party's national convention, held at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

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By Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- The anxiety comes in several forms, but particularly common is the pained look, followed by the quick glance away and the lengthy pause, in the face of a simple question: How is Barack Obama doing?

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"Ahhh . . .," said Barry Bogarde, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Pennsylvania, a battleground state that the senator from Illinois needs to win. "Better," he finally said. "He's doing better."

Asked how things are going for Democrats in New Hampshire, another swing state that the party carried in 2004, the state party chairman, Ray Buckley, did not even mention Obama's race against Sen. John McCain. He talked instead about efforts to win a Senate race and hold two congressional seats.

Jim Beasley, the commissioner of Ohio's Department of Transportation, did not have high hopes for Obama in his area of southern Ohio. "Ahhh, well. Rural Ohio will be difficult," he said. "Rural areas are difficult for him."

As the Democrats kicked off a convention designed to unite support behind Obama, interviews with several dozen delegates pointed to an undercurrent of anxiety among many from key swing states who will be charged with leading the push in their communities. They expressed doubts bordering on bewilderment: Why, in a year that had been shaping up as a watershed for Democrats, amid an economic downturn and an unpopular Republican presidency, is the race so tight?

The sentiment is strongest among former supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, though it is not limited to them. While many say they now back Obama -- a New York Times-CBS poll of delegates showed widespread support -- they are candid about the challenges they say he faces in their states.

Some have also shown signs of still being focused on the Democratic primaries and not being fully invested in the general-election effort. On Sunday night, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland echoed recent comments by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell that media coverage during the primaries had been biased in Obama's favor. And several top Clinton advisers will not be staying in Denver to see Obama accept the nomination, according to sources familiar with their schedules.

A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll of registered voters released Sunday found that roughly two-thirds of self-identified Clinton supporters are now backing Obama, while 27 percent said they will vote for McCain. Other polls have shown Obama receiving less support from Clinton backers.

To be sure, many delegates here confidently shared the campaign's assurance that all is going according to plan. They argued that polls understate Obama's strength because they miss many of his younger supporters who use cellphones, and that many voters are only now tuning in to the election. Judy Byrne Riley, a delegate from Niceville, Fla., said she is impressed by the excitement about Obama in her mostly Republican area. "He can carry the state," she said.

Delegates were interviewed at state get-togethers, at targeted events such as rural and African American caucuses, and on the street. They largely represented the swing states where the last few elections were decided -- Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, as well as New Hampshire and others.

The delegates offered plenty of advice, such as urging Obama to deliver a more visceral message on the economy to win over stressed working-class voters.

"He's got to kick [butt] a little more about it," said Bill George, a former steelworker from western Pennsylvania who is the president of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO. Acknowledging that Obama's style may be too cerebral for that, George said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Obama's pick for running mate, could serve that role. "He's going to go run across this state and kick John McCain from one side to the other," George said.


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