Obama's Challenge: Gain Lead in Polls

Presidential Campaigns Seek to Lower Expectations on 3rd Quarter Fundraising

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 23, 2007; Page A04

While the candidates for the White House will spend the next week furiously raising money in advance of their next financial reporting deadline, the man who has raised the most is facing a different challenge: turning that money into a lead in the polls.

Like his fellow contenders, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who led all candidates in both parties by pulling in $58.5 million over the first six months of the year, will be holding a string of fundraisers this week, before the latest quarterly fundraising deadline of Sept. 30.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), ahead in the money race but second in most polls among Democratic presidential contenders, greets students in Ames, Iowa.
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), ahead in the money race but second in most polls among Democratic presidential contenders, greets students in Ames, Iowa. (By Kevin Sanders -- Associated Press)

Even before the totals are announced, however, some of the donors who have helped raise millions for Obama are beginning to ask when the gap in polls between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will finally begin to narrow. The first votes in the primary season will be cast in less than four months, and the nomination could be wrapped up in a matter of weeks after that.

"People ask me all the time when I'm raising money: 'What is going on with the polling?' " one member of Obama's national finance committee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the campaign's restriction on committee members speaking to the news media. "He drives out great crowds wherever he goes, but everyone still wonders a little bit if that's going to turn into votes."

Clinton, despite becoming the subject of frequent sniping from her rivals, has shown no signs of faltering. Riding a consistent double-digit lead over Obama in national polls, she will make a media blitz this morning, appearing on five of the top network and cable talk shows. She is also ahead in most surveys in the early-voting states, except in Iowa where the race is tight.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe contended that the race should be viewed through the early crucible of Iowa, which remains almost certain to have the first say in the nomination contest despite a shifting campaign calendar.

"I think Iowa is in a different level of engagement than any other state in the country, and what you see there is a very tight three-way contest" among Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), Plouffe said in an interview. "It's the only place we've advertised in and the place Senator Obama has spent most of his time."

Some Obama supporters are pushing him to make a change in strategy: a full, no-holds-barred attack on Clinton and aspects of her husband's legacy. For now, sources said, others inside the campaign -- most important, the candidate himself -- favor a more nuanced approach, seeking contrast with Clinton on issues that emphasize Obama's strengths, particularly the notion that he can unite Americans while arguing that the Clintons are more polarizing figures.

"Are we going to distort quotes and votes from 15 or 20 years ago? No," Plouffe said. "That's not the kind of campaign Barack wants to run. But when we do have significant differences . . . those are issues we're going to engage on."

Obama is making some changes to his campaign. In Iowa last week, the campaign launched its first television ads that featured Obama speaking directly to the camera. Valerie Jarrett, a longtime family friend who vacations with the Obamas at Martha's Vineyard, will begin spending more time in the headquarters and possibly on the road with Obama. Aides characterized the move not as a major reshuffling but rather an attempt to add depth to the campaign's staff.

Steve Hildebrand, a veteran Democratic operative who has been overseeing the early-states strategy of Obama, is broadening his portfolio to include states such as California and New York that will vote on what could amount to a national mega-primary on Feb. 5. He is taking this tack as Obama aides are preparing for a protracted nomination battle, betting that balloting in Iowa and New Hampshire alone will not determine the final outcome of the contest.

As Obama wrestles with the enviable problem of translating a slew of cash into upward movement in the polls, the other candidates are simply hoping to wring out enough contributions in the next week to meet the high expectations established in the first half of the year. Aides to many are warning that the pockets of the nation's political donors may not be bottomless.

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