Voter mood has Fenty quickly shifting gears on strategy

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty greets former teachers and principals of H.D. Woodson High School during a news conference to tout a huge construction project.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty greets former teachers and principals of H.D. Woodson High School during a news conference to tout a huge construction project. (Marvin Joseph)
By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Facing bleak poll results and rising pessimism about his chances of reelection, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty plans to rebuff advice that he try to win over only key groups of potential supporters and instead will use a strategy that worked for him in 2006: wooing voters across the city.

He will roll out the broad-appeal approach Wednesday when he meets his chief rival, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, for a one-on-one debate. The midday forum, which will be streamed live on The Washington Post's Web site and later broadcast, is one of Fenty's last opportunities to connect with large numbers of voters before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

For Fenty, who lagged Gray by 17 percentage points among likely voters in a Post poll published Sunday, tactics and tone are crucial. Although many of those polled said they were pleased with the direction of the city under his leadership, the mayor's popularity is suffering from perceptions that he is disconnected and aloof.

As Fenty has faltered, Gray has gained support from residents who feel disaffected or say they are turned off by the 39-year-old Fenty and believe that the 67-year-old city official is a more mature, stable leader who can work to bridge racial and neighborhood rivalries.

The mayor has tried to combat that perception through a combination of shoe-leather campaigning, force of personality and advertising, knocking on thousands of doors to meet voters and spending more than $1 million on television commercials. He has tried to build his campaign around the accomplishments of his hard-charging schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, whom he credits with improving test scores.

Yet his summer-long strategy hasn't worked. The Post's poll found that Rhee is hurting the mayor's campaign as much as she's helping it. Moreover, Fenty has struggled especially to win the support of black residents, who are expected to make up at least half of the primary electorate and who in the Post poll said they were overwhelmingly likely to support Gray.

Increasingly alarmed over the direction of the campaign, some of Fenty's friends and supporters have in recent days urged him to shift his strategy, perhaps embracing an approach that redoubles efforts to generate more enthusiasm among his base of support, in the white community and more affluent areas of the city. The Post poll showed that Fenty is struggling to win support from African Americans.

Many Fenty supporters are holding out hope that he has enough time to rebound if he sharpens his appeal.

"There is a lot of positive things about his record that can be brought to bear in a little more focused way," said Max Brown, a Fenty supporter who managed former mayor Anthony Williams's 1998 campaign. "The young people, who traditionally haven't turned out in big numbers - the mayor has to make sure those folks turn out and are receptive to his message."

Yet, Fenty said Tuesday that he intends to focus on a citywide campaign to win support in all neighborhoods, not just from specific voters in specific neighborhoods.

"I've never run a campaign like that," Fenty said. "Every vote is the same. . . . They all add up."

At the debate, Fenty plans to reach out to undecided voters by talking about his experiences as a public schools student and explore his human side by speaking about himself as a father. He also aims to challenge Gray's ethics and honesty, his advisers said.

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