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?
"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.
But for some delegates, the concern is a more fundamental one: They do not share Obama's confidence that he can overcome the resistance many voters may have to electing a black president with an unusual background and name.
Some, such as Rendell, worry aloud about the "Bradley effect" -- the theory, disputed by some political scientists, that voters are likely to tell pollsters they will support a black candidate even though they don't intend to. With a little more than two months to go until Election Day, some of these most ardent and veteran Democrats have not bought into the idealism that has driven the campaign from the start and are unsure whether their neighbors and co-workers are ready for Obama.
"You don't want to play the race card, but it's out there," Bogarde said. He, like others, said he hopes Obama's selection of Biden would help get wary voters over the hump, with Biden acting as an emissary to communities like his native Scranton, Pa. "I just think the trade and labor movement was not ready for some of the major changes we're looking at" in Obama, Bogarde said. "Biden's close to the trades, and it plays better with him."
Bogarde's superior, AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee, was more blunt. "It shouldn't be as close as it is now. It just seems to me it shouldn't be that close. It should be a no-brainer," he said.
The union spent heavily on Clinton's campaign before lining up behind Obama, but McEntee insisted that his concern about the closeness of the race is not meant as an "I told you so." Other Clinton supporters here also sought to put their apprehension in context, saying that it was possible that had the senator from New York won the primaries, she would be facing her own tough fights in key states because of her polarizing effect on many voters.
Sarah Hamilton, a Clinton supporter who works for the Ohio Federation of Teachers, linked Obama's challenges in the state to the resistance that other Democratic presidential candidates have faced in trying to trump social issues with economic ones. "I really think it still has to do with 'Gods, guns and gays.' You bring in his race, and the Muslim rumor, all these things are factors that are easy to play out in the rural areas," she said.
One of Obama's most senior advisers acknowledged the angst among Democratic insiders that the race has remained so close, but suggested that it is normal for a party on the cusp of winning the White House after eight years of the Bush administration. "In politics, only the paranoid survive," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). "At the end of the day, even though I'm anxious, I'm still confident we're going to win."
Daschle emphasized the need to pull off a smooth convention, then have Obama judged the winner of the debates. After that, he said, a superior get-out-the-vote effort by Obama's campaign should translate into an Election Day victory.
But Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said Democrats are still mired in a period in which they have to "make everybody feel affirmed, especially the Hillary people." This has left the Obama campaign too focused on appeasing Democrats rather than focusing on independents and Republicans who have grown disaffected by the Bush administration. "We need to be talking to each other, but we also need to be talking to America," Turnham said.
Worry extends to some rank-and-file Obama supporters, such as John Crenshaw, a real estate investor from Birmingham, Ala.
"We're all anxious," he said. The last month of political coverage in the media, he said, has centered on "tabloid" issues of the extramarital affair of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), charges from the McCain campaign that Obama is an elitist and the run-up to Biden's selection. All this has knocked the Obama campaign from focusing the debate on the issues of ending the Iraq war and turning around the economy. "We're not talking about any of that -- and it's crazy," Crenshaw said.
At the same time, the anxiety about racial resistance to Obama rankles some African American delegates here. They note that he has already made it much further than most expected him to, and warn against using worries about his race as an excuse not to work all- out in trying to win over undecided voters. Tony Hill, a state senator from Jacksonville, said he understands that delegates do not want to be overconfident, but noted that the campaign has registered hundreds of thousands of voters in Florida alone, and has far outpaced McCain in fundraising.
Lynette Bryant, a physician from Little Rock, said delegates are not keeping up the idealism that drove the campaign this far. "We're going to win. They should take a deep breath," she said. "Faith is a belief that will carry us through what needs to be done. And it must be done."