Obama Says McCain Has Erred by Focusing on Change

By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama fought back yesterday against Democratic concerns that Sen. John McCain has seized the initiative in the presidential race, arguing that the conventions did little to change the structure of the election and that his rival made a major miscalculation by focusing the choice on who can do more to change Washington.

With Democrats raising questions about whether Obama had lost the upper hand in the campaign, Obama advisers sought to tamp down worries that the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate and a newly energized Republican base had altered the outlook for an election that party activists long said was Obama's to lose.

Chief political strategist David Axelrod conceded that McCain had "reshuffled the deck" with the Palin pick and said that the campaign will now seek to turn the spotlight back to the top of the ticket. "I'm not worried," Axelrod said. "Campaigns are a series of strategic and tactical challenges. The fundamentals are still the same. This race will settle in down the road a little bit." But he added, "We're certainly paying attention."

Campaign manager David Plouffe said that the race is "exactly where we thought it would be," that it will remain close nationally and that the outcome will be decided by a handful of battleground states that are likely to remain highly competitive until Election Day.

"We've been through a lot of hand-wringing episodes in Washington," said Plouffe, responding to post-convention concerns within the Democratic Party. "Multiple times. And there's a value in that. Campaigns are going to have periods when the insiders think you're riding high and when they think you're experiencing turbulence."

During a brief news conference in Ohio, Obama was pressed by reporters to explain the significance of polls that have moved in McCain's direction, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll showing a notable shift among white women. Obama dismissed the polls and said the real significance is that the Republicans have decided to challenge him on his own turf.

"What's changed is that the Republican Party, which had been trying to make an argument about experience, basically got off that and came to our field," Obama said. "And they realize that this is going to be a change election. . . . I believe that I can make a very persuasive case that Joe Biden and Barack Obama are better equipped to bring about change than the other ticket."

At the top, the Obama campaign remains a lean and highly focused operation, with a discipline that proved calming throughout the breakneck primary battle between the senator from Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). But the cool approach can look to others in the party like passive disregard when the unexpected hits. No event this summer was less anticipated, or had greater short-term impact on the race, than McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate.

For at least a week after Palin's name was announced, Obama stuck to economic themes while campaigning across the Rust Belt. He portrayed McCain as an out-of-touch Washington insider and mentioned Palin only in passing, often noting her "compelling" life story. But the Alaska governor's offbeat celebrity appeal was helping McCain shake his ties to President Bush and restore his maverick image.

By Monday, national polls showed that perceptions about McCain were shifting and that he was gaining support not only with conservatives but with swing voters, especially women.

Obama "needs to make clear again to people why they had deep concerns about John McCain," said a Democratic strategist who declined to be identified so as to speak freely about Obama's strategy. "It is because he represents four more years of Bush's policies on the economy and Iraq. . . . The Palin pick is just so much gauze hiding that. The goal of the Obama campaign must be to pull that away."

Another strategist, who also declined to be identified in order to offer a candid view of the election, said: "They've fallen into the shorthand of a third Bush term. They need to move beyond that to make it much more about the real differences between Obama and McCain. Just asserting that McCain's the same doesn't take you far enough."

Obama has faced questions about his strategy before. A year ago, he was under fire, after months of campaigning, for not moving in the polls. Then when he lost New Hampshire, there were more questions about whether he was overconfident.

Several Democrats said yesterday that those previous episodes give them confidence in Obama's team now. "It reminds me a little bit of the period right after the Iowa caucus," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), an Obama friend and adviser. "There was this unrealistic expectation that he was going to run the table."

Following a successful Democratic convention, Durbin added, "there was another unrealistic expectation that this was going to be simple." But from the beginning, he said, "we said it was going to be a close race, and I've always believed that."

Howard Wolfson, who was the Clinton campaign's communications director, said, "Having watched them for the last two years, I have a lot of respect for their ability. There were times when people in this town fretted about their campaign and they knew what they were doing. And I still think they know what they're doing."

Plouffe said he believed what movement there has been in the race is that the two conventions consolidated the Democratic and Republican bases. "We think he's maxed out his Republican support," he said of McCain. "We still like who the undecided independents are. A lot of them are women -- a lot of suburban women, and there are some rural women. I think if there has been any short-term boost because of Palin and their convention, we think that's going to settle down as people focus on the task ahead."

Still, for all its public displays of confidence, the Obama campaign will dispatch Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Govs. Janet Napolitano (Ariz.) and Kathleen Sebelius (Kan.) to battleground states starting this weekend to make direct appeals to female voters. Their mission is to tout the Democratic ticket's support for equal pay, fixing health care and improving schools, but to avoid a gender showdown by keeping the focus on McCain.

The Obama campaign is also urging swing-state supporters to customize McCain's record for specific voter groups. For instance, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) said he would remind elderly Pennsylvanians that McCain has supported Social Security privatization efforts, and working-class parents that the GOP nominee opposed an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is hugely popular in the Keystone state.

"I don't think the people of Pennsylvania think those are the right policies or the votes of a maverick," Casey said.

But he acknowledged that McCain's shift is resonating. "He's benefited from the afterglow of 2000, when he was running against President Bush," Casey said. "There's still some work to do to let more voters know about his record."

One result of McCain's momentum is that the presidential debates have become make-or-break events. "They're going to be the game here, because people have questions about both candidates," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who is helping Obama with debate preparation.

He said Obama must focus on two issues that undermine McCain's maverick makeover: his pro-Bush voting record and the high-profile role lobbyists play in his campaign.

"McCain got a good bounce, but it will level out," former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a top Obama adviser, said in an e-mail. "But we know we can win this. There will be bumps, twists and turns, but we are going to stick with our strategy."

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