Strong showing in early primaries could help Obama in California

[9 August 2007]

By Peter Hecht

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama breezed into Sacramento on Wednesday for a stop on one political circuit where he is faring exceptionally well - raising money.

On the money front, the Illinois senator is surpassing the establishment frontrunner, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has raked in $58.5 million this year - compared to $52.5 million for Clinton - and lured a remarkable quarter-million individual donors through the Internet.

Yet as Obama mingled with adoring supporters on the sidewalk before entering a private fundraiser Wednesday, he faced multiple campaign challenges.

The man who has drawn huge crowds as a political and social phenomenon - the first African-American with a legitimate chance to win the White House - trails badly in the latest nationwide Gallup Poll. And in an Aug. 1 American Research poll for California, Clinton led with 35 percent support to 22 percent for Obama and 16 percent for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Obama’s standing has slipped as Democratic opponents and Republicans alike have skewered him for saying he would meet with rogue leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and declaring he would send the U.S. military into Pakistan to pursue al-Qaida if the Pakistani government failed to act.

“Barack Obama is the candidate of hope and new ideas,” said Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow. “Hillary Clinton is the candidate with experience who has proven to be tough. She will be very quick to exploit anything Obama does to look like he is not up to the job.

“When he started talking about visiting with leaders of nations who are hostile to us, he gave her an opening.”

Obama’s credentials in foreign policy also came under fire in Tuesday’s AFL-CIO debate in Chicago when Clinton scolded him about his remarks on intervening in Pakistan.

“You shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president because it has consequences across the world,” she said.

But Obama has set himself apart by portraying himself as someone - unlike Clinton - who opposed the Iraq war from the start.

“I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war on terror,” he responded Tuesday night.

On Wednesday in Sacramento, he appeared to tout a campaign strategy - mounting a political surge in early primary states - to generate momentum to trump Clinton nationally.

“Just keep working. Just keep staying focused on the issues,” he said, wading into a crowd of supporters chanting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!”

“We will get to California Feb. 5” for the state presidential primary, he said. “By the time we get here, we will have won Iowa. We will have won New Hampshire. We will have won Nevada. We will have won South Carolina, and we’ll just put it to bed right here in California.”

Despite unimpressive national poll numbers - he trailed Clinton 48 percent to 26 percent in the recent Gallup Poll - he fares better in key early states.

Obama has charged from 8 percentage points behind Clinton in South Carolina to lead her 33 percent to 21 percent in a July 26-30 American Research Group poll.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll in Iowa also showed him with a slim lead, favored by 27 percent of Democratic voters to 26 percent each for Clinton and Edwards. He still trails Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire and Nevada.

Former California state controller and gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly said Obama’s fortunes in the delegate-rich Golden State will soar if he fares well in states with earlier primaries.

Westly, Obama’s California campaign co-chairman, said the dynamics would change markedly if Clinton finishes third in the Jan. 14 Iowa caucuses.

“If you see a Barack-Edwards-Clinton finish, she’s got a big problem,” Westly said. “Presumptive winners cannot finish third.”

On Wednesday, Westly introduced Obama at a $1,000- to $2,300-per person fundraiser at the offices of Sacramento attorney Howard Dickstein and attorney-developer Mark Friedman. Other guests included Jon Merksamer, owner of DeVons Jewelers, as well as developer Skip Rosenbloom, attorney Joseph Genshlea and former University of California, Davis Vice Chancellor Celeste Rose.

The event was expected to draw some 150 people and raise at least $200,000.

“He is outraising Mrs. Clinton straight on,” Westly said. “This is stunning, and this is important. And he is still getting bigger crowds than anybody in modern American politics.”

Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said Obama has suffered as Clinton performed strongly in Democratic candidate debates, coming across as “very polished and informed” while knowing “how to tip-toe around the hazards.” But he said Obama’s money, star appeal and competitiveness in early states make him a “long-term player” in the race.

“In the meantime, he’s facing what happens with every candidate,” Carrick said. “When the buzz is with you, it’s great. And then it’s not with you.”

Among Obama supporters straining to see their candidate as he showed up for the fundraiser, there was still plenty of buzz.

“I’m here for his decency, his hope, his integrity,” said Theresa Keene, a keyboardist for the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.

Obama backer Serena Kirk, a health care policy analyst who helped organize the turnout of people cheering him from the sidewalk, said she hopes Obama’s next visit isn’t just an in-and-out fundraiser.

“We would like a (campaign) rally. We don’t care about the money,” she said. “We’re hoping that his showing up will gather the energy in Sacramento, and we’re hoping he comes back.”

Outside the event, Obama mentioned the recent Minnesota bridge collapse to call for new ethics in politics. He said the tragedy demonstrated that too much money is being doled out based on political influence instead of actual national needs.

Though he is brimming with campaign cash, Obama has criticized Clinton for refusing to spurn donations from Washington, D.C., lobbyists. “I think there’s a decided difference in how we operate and how some of the other candidates operate,” he said Wednesday.

His test will be to overcome Clinton’s lead and become the Democrats’ fresh face again.

“You can’t be the fresh and exciting candidate with no scars throughout an entire election cycle,” Sragow said. “It’s inevitable he would hit a period where the bloom was off the rose. The question is: How will he be able to react and bounce back?”

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