Trailing in polls, Fenty abruptly shifts campaign strategy

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 11:50 PM

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.

For his part, Gray will continue to hammer away at the mayor as he has since he launched his campaign, arguing that he will bring "mature, seasoned, broad leadership to the city." Yet with early voting already underway, Gray acknowledged Tuesday he still has not rolled out part of his campaign platform.

Winning the Democratic primary has always been tantamount to winning the general election in the District, and some of Fenty's biggest challenges are in the vote-rich, overwhelmingly black working- and middle-class dominant neighborhoods that form a residential crescent stretching from roughly Rock Creek Park to Minnesota Avenue SE. Nearly half of all Democratic votes in 2006 came from wards 4, 5 and 7. Fenty and Gray are about evenly matched in Ward 4, but Gray overwhelms Fenty 3 to 1 in Ward 5 and 6 to 1 in Ward 7, according to the new Post poll. Those wards cast three times more ballots in 2006 than did Democratic voters in Ward 3, where Fenty now leads Gray by a margin of 51 to 38 percent.

"We believe if we get our voters to the polls, there is no way the mayor can win," said Adam Rubinson, Gray's campaign manager. "The only way we can possibly lose is if we are complacent and don't get out our vote. . . . The math is just not there."

Bill Lightfoot, Fenty's campaign chairman, counters that Fenty still believes he will wage a superior get-out-the-vote effort. On Monday, the first day of early voting, the campaign had about 20 buses to take voters to the polls. "We've identified thousands of people to get them out to vote," he said.

On Sunday, to respond to The Post's poll, Fenty held a news conference at United Medical Center in Ward 8, a decision meant to be symbolic of accomplishments east of the Anacostia River. Minutes later, he veered off message to attend a news conference to defend what he called "the First Amendment rights" of Anwar "Big G" Glover, a go-go music entertainer who was suspended from his job at WKYS for talking about his endorsement of the mayor on the air.

On Monday, he held a non-campaign news conference at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7, which highlighted the $103 million construction project in Gray's ward. On Tuesday, he was in Ward 8 to cut a ribbon on Yes! Organic market. And on Wednesday, the Fenty campaign will launch an ad on radio stations with mostly-white audiences.

Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz, who is not affiliated with either campaign, said it would be highly unusual for an incumbent to overcome a double-digit deficit in the polls with just two weeks until Election Day. But Brodnitz said he still sees a potential opening for Fenty if he can make the last two weeks about the future of the city instead of about himself.

"I think some voters are just now starting to tune in. . . . If you can make it a referendum on the city instead of a referendum on how you feel about Fenty, then he can win," said Brodnitz, noting that The Post poll showed most Democratic voters think the city is heading in the right direction.

Mo Elleithee, Gray's senior strategist, said the chairman will try to position himself at the debate as the "the bigger leader."

He said Gray expects the mayor to come at him "with both guns blazing."

"Vince has got to be able to make it clear where his attacks are inaccurate and sort of rise above that."

Although Gray advisers stress that they are not taking anything for granted, the chairman at times appears to be settling into the role of the front-runner. On Tuesday, he held a news conference to support council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who trailed challenger Michael D. Brown in The Post's poll.

But Gray still hasn't fulfilled promises to release a detailed fiscal policy and public safety agenda.

"We are working hard, and we are going to release our public safety papers," Gray said. "As a matter of fact, we take it so seriously, we continue to review it and make some changes to it."

Polling director Jon Cohen and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company