By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008
SUNRISE, Fla., Oct. 29 -- Eager to cement his case for the presidency in voters' minds before the campaign's frenetic final weekend, Sen. Barack Obama blitzed the television airwaves and deployed one of the Democratic Party's biggest names to deliver his message of change.
Obama's campaign spent more than $3 million to air a 30-minute infomercial on seven networks simultaneously. He appeared at one Florida rally with his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., and another with former president Bill Clinton as local news shows went live in this crucial battleground state.
The campaign also unleashed its first advertisement critical of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as Obama addressed big crowds Florida and North Carolina, where he hopes to snap a Republican run.
In a day capped with a taped interview on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," the Illinois Democrat also cautioned his supporters against overconfidence despite his lead in most polls. He told them: "Don't believe for a second this election's over."
In the 30-minute advertisement, which GOP nominee John McCain dismissed as a "gauzy, feel-good commercial," Obama aimed to etch a portrait as a candidate who understands the economic toll the nation is enduring and who would turn the page on the current administration.
He introduced voters -- a group carefully selected by his campaign that cut across lines of geography and race and discussed their struggles with mortgage payments, access to health care and fears of a losing a job.
Obama offered details about his approach to issues such as housing, taxes, the Iraq war and energy policy. Between snippets of speeches and endorsements from colleagues, he spoke of his mother, who died of cancer, and said, "We've been talking about the same problems for decades, and nothing is ever done to solve them."
The program ended with two minutes of live footage of Obama speaking to 20,000 cheering supporters in South Florida, where he hopes to stockpile votes in a state in which polls show him with a slender advantage. As the national audience tuned in, Obama said: "In six days, we can choose hope over fear and unity over division. The promise of change over the power of the status quo."
McCain was skeptical, likening Obama to an infomercial salesman.
"He's offering government-run health care," the Republican told a crowd in Riviera Beach, Fla., "an energy plan guaranteed to work without drilling . . . and an automatic wealth spreader that folds neatly and fits under any bed."
Obama scheduled his first public appearance with Clinton in the general-election campaign for a rally near Orlando timed for the 11 p.m. news. Clinton, the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Florida, backed him only after questioning his readiness during a bitter primary fight but is now campaigning on his behalf in a string of contested states.
The pair, introduced as "the 42nd president and the next president," took the stage to cheers from a crowd of 35,000. Declaring that Obama "represents the future," Clinton predicted that Obama would be a smart president "who wants to understand, and he can understand."
To demonstrate that his support is firm, Clinton gave four reasons to choose him:
He pointed to Obama's philosophy, policies, his ability to make a decision and his ability to execute that decision. Saying that Obama "represents the future" he called on the crowd to "find the people who are still teetering and wavering, and tell them why they ought to be with us."
Clinton asked the crowd to vote, and then go out and "find the people who are still teetering and wavering, and tell them why they ought to be with us."
The timing of the Obama-Clinton appearance is a tactic the campaign intends to repeat in the coming days. An aide said a central goal is to maximize face time on local news broadcasts -- and to cover as much ground as possible before he votes Tuesday in Chicago.
By the end of the day Saturday, Obama will have campaigned in eight states in four days, moving from North Carolina to Florida, then north to Virginia and west to Missouri, Iowa and Indiana. On Saturday, he plans to start in Nevada and finish in Colorado.
"It's campaign from dawn to dusk," the aide said. "We're campaigning as though we're five points down, to the very end."
The decision to bombard the airwaves on Wednesday and Thursday was grounded in the belief that, by Friday, much of the media coverage will be focused on the horse race and producing stories heavily influenced by the candidates' last-minute travels and maneuvers.
By Monday, Obama strategist David Axelrod said, it will be too late because the vast majority of voters will have chosen a candidate.
"At this stage," Obama told host Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," "everything that needs to be said has probably been heard by a lot of voters, and what you want to do is just remind them one more time, 'Here's what I'm going to do,' not oversell, and let people make up their own minds."
McCain and the Republican National Committee made their own case, with ads that called Obama unready for the White House. One called him "risky." Another airing frequently in North Carolina shows stormy seas and asks, "What if this storm does get worse?" Perhaps most striking was a McCain spot arguing that the Democrat is not ready for the White House "yet."
The ad also mocks Obama's Internet-savvy campaign by finishing with the words "Barack Obama: untested."
Obama's newest 30-second advertisements directly target Palin after weeks of letting others question her credentials. The campaign links McCain's comments about the economy with the Alaska governor, who until last year was the mayor of a town of 6,000.
Against a gloomy backdrop, the silent ad presents McCain's own statements, including the December comment that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
The final comment comes from a November debate among GOP rivals, when he said, "I might have to rely on a vice president that I select." The screen shifts to two words -- "His choice?" -- and a video of Palin speaking and winking.
Obama's campaign has long shied away from direct criticism of Palin. But with opinion polls showing widespread doubts about her ability to handle the duties of the Oval Office, an Obama aide said the advertisement was designed to use McCain's words to raise doubts about his own ability to deal with the economy, "and what he hopes to get out of his vice presidential candidate."
The campaign, the aide said, wants voters to ask themselves "whether they're comfortable with Sarah Palin in that role."
In Raleigh, N.C., where 28,000 people gathered on a windswept downtown common, Obama joked about McCain's attempt to label him a socialist.
"Lately, he calls me a socialist for wanting to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans so we can finally give tax relief to the middle class," Obama said.
"I don't know -- by the end of the week he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich."