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The Campaign Marches On

As the results of the Pennsylvania primary sunk in Wednesday, the question that had been forming for weeks became a chorus: Why can’t Sen. Barack Obama close the deal?

In the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama (D-Ill.) has enjoyed a commanding lead in both the delegate count and the popular vote, a large fund-raising edge, an army of wired and eager volunteers, the momentum brought by a string of victories — and an opponent with high negative ratings.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 9-point victory on Tuesday was the boost her campaign needed. It quickly brought an infusion of much-needed millions into her campaign war-chest and fueled the argument she has been making to party leaders: she is the best candidate to counter Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November.

The Obama campaign appeared to make several quick adjustments. Speaking in Indiana — which, along with North Carolina, will hold its primary on May 6 – Obama sharpened his focus on McCain. At the same time, his campaign began honing its argument to superdelegates – the party leaders likely to decide the nomination – that, by bringing in new young and independent voters, and broadening the electoral map playing field, Obama stands the best chance of defeating McCain in November, its own version of the electability pitch Clinton has been making for weeks.

But even as it talks about the general election, the Obama campaign cannot avoid the fact that it is still sparring with Clinton. That Obama has not yet landed a knock-out punch may be due in large measure to the very essence of his candidacy.

From the start, the first-term senator has promised a new kind of politics, willing to work with adversaries to get things done. But the Pennsylvania race took a sharply negative turn, with tough sparring from both camps. "Pretty vile stuff," is how Gov. Ed Rendell, Clinton’s top surrogate in the state, put it Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., and a longtime observer of politics in the state, said that the move to negative politics poses its own problems for Obama. “He now appears like a mortal,” Madonna said. “He is a regular candidate now. He’s throwing mud. He’s no longer a unifier. He no longer is the guy who can pull everyone together.”

That dilemma – how to stay true to his promise of a different kind of politics, while being tough enough to put an end to Clinton’s candidacy – is a serious one. Negotiating how for to go, without going too far, will be a challenge for the campaign.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Obama campaign would turn even more negative in the coming weeks, with aides “likely to turn to the controversies of Bill Clinton’s White House years — Hillary Clinton’s trading cattle futures, Whitewater and possibly impeachment.”

David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, denied such a plan. “We’re not going to do that,” Plouffe told reporters on a conference call. “We have not talked about those issues in the campaign and we won’t.”

Ron Fournier, a long-time political writer for The Associated Press, listed “mettle” as one of the reasons Obama has been unable to wrap up the nomination. While he still hasn’t convinced some Democrats that he is tough enough, “Clinton’s backers love the fact that she fought Republicans — not to mention the ‘right-wing conspiracy’ — during her husband’s presidency,” Fournier wrote.

Obama is also dogged by charges of inexperience, discomfort among some white voters with his race, and what Fournier called “friends in trouble,” including Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., fund-raiser Tony Rezko and William Ayers, the 1960s radical.

Another weak spot for Obama is women voters. White women comprised 47 percent of primary voters in Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, and they favored Clinton by an astonishing margin, 66 percent to 34 percent.

Tuesday’s results showed Obama continuing to do well among blacks, young voters and the wealthy. But exit polls showed Clinton remained strong among the white, blue-collar voters, who are the core of the Democratic electorate, beating him 69 percent to 30 percent in that demographic.

Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host and former Republican congressman from Florida, put it simply: “Unless he can connect with blue-collar Democrats, he can’t put Hillary Clinton away.”

Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign who is president of NDN, a progressive think tank, said Obama must sharpen his economic message if he is to appeal to these voters.

“His economic argument is still too political, too focused on attacking Sen. Clinton over her NAFTA position than on offering a compelling argument on how he intends to raise the standard of living of all Americans,” Rosenberg wrote this week. “The inability of the Obama campaign to organize themselves around the struggle of the middle class has been, and continues to be, one of the great strategic weaknesses of this year’s remarkable campaign.”

After watching the race unfold in Pennsylvania, Madonna said that when it comes to talking about economic issues – which 55 percent of Tuesday’s primary voters said was their top concern – Clinton “has the advantage of being more specific.”

“Obama goes into these generalities that people think is uplifting,” Madonna said. “But she deals in specifics.”

Despite that, Obama had started to make some headway in his economic pitch. “I really thought he was connecting,” Madonna said. But any progress was diverted by two weeks of attention on comments Obama made at a San Francisco fund-raiser, that small-town Americans become bitter and cling to guns and religion when faced with tough economic times.

As he presses on, Obama should stay true to his original pledge to change politics, and talk more specifically about policy, Madonna said.

“I’d go back to the Obama the up-lifter, Obama the unifier,” he said. “And I’d start talking about this program and that program, and how we’re going to fix that problem.”

In fact, the best way to defeat Clinton may be to look past her. “I’d go after McCain as representing a third Bush term,” Madonna said, “and I’d leave Hillary alone.”

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