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Downside of Obama Strategy

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[Obama strategists figured they could compensate for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strength in large, traditionally Democratic states by focusing their efforts on smaller states, many of which almost always vote Republican in the general election.]
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By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 8, 2008

Democrats in Wyoming will hold caucuses today and -- following what is now a familiar pattern -- are expected to give Sen. Barack Obama the majority of their 12 pledged delegates.

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The Illinois Democrat's strength in a Republican state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 is the latest example of an ingenious strategy that neatly addresses the advantage Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) enjoys in Democratic strongholds where she and her husband have long-standing ties.

But Obama's losses Tuesday in Texas and Ohio -- coupled with his Feb. 5 defeats in California, New York and New Jersey -- have not only shown the strategy's downside. They have also given supporters of Clinton an opening for an argument that winning over affluent, educated white voters in small Democratic enclaves, such as Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, and running up the score with African Americans in the Republican South exaggerate his strengths in states that will not vote Democratic in the fall.

If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee but cannot win support from working-class whites and Hispanics, they argue, then Democrats will not retake the White House in November. "If you can't win in the Southwest, if you don't win Ohio, if you don't win Pennsylvania, you've got problems in November," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Clinton supporter.

Even some Obama advisers see a real problem. "Ultimately, all that matters is how the nominee stacks up against John McCain," said one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity, referring to the senator from Arizona and presumptive GOP nominee. "Right now, Barack is not connecting with the children of the Reagan Democrats. That's a real concern."

"It's now a battle between the base and the new young Democrats and Democrats who are more energized than they've been in the past," agreed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Obama supporter. "I don't know how that's going to play out."

With the campaign moving next week to Mississippi, another Republican state where Obama is expected to do well, these questions will only grow louder as the Clinton camp tries to minimize the importance of those states while raising the stakes for Pennsylvania on April 22.

Obama and his allies counter that California and New York are firmly in the Democratic column and that, as the party's nominee, he could carry them just as easily as Clinton.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said he is not going to be goaded into shifting from the current strategy, which is to get as many delegates from wherever he can. And he rejects what he says is the Clinton campaign's attempt to give greater legitimacy to certain states -- especially Pennsylvania, where Clinton is expected to have an advantage because of her support from the Democratic establishment there and because its demographics are similar to Ohio's.

But many Democratic elected officials are worried. "No one's jumping up and down in Okeechobee, Florida, saying we've got a perfect ticket," agreed Rep. Tim Mahoney (Fla.), a moderate, unaffiliated Democrat in a swing district. "If you're a Barack Obama, you're going to have to figure out how to reach out to white, middle-aged men."

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who like Mahoney has not endorsed either Obama or Clinton, is concerned about Obama's poor performance among Latino voters in California and Texas. "It's unfortunate," he said, "because Barack Obama has done very well with Latino voters in Illinois, and I know his heart, and it's for an inclusive agenda."

Obama rejects the charge that he has failed to reach important segments of the party, noting that he has shown he can crack Clinton's coalition of working-class voters, women and Latinos with his wins in the bellwether state of Missouri, the swing state of Virginia and the Rust Belt redoubt of Wisconsin. He also showed that he can expand the battleground into the coveted Mountain West, with his convincing win in Colorado.


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