Clift: Dems Exhilarated But Nervous About Obama

Democrats leave Denver exhilarated but nervous. Their candidate can win and should win, but in conversation after conversation, there are doubts. It's hard for Democrats to get elected nationally even though President Bush has screwed up and the playing field is in their favor. Republicans have been amazingly successful in turning Barack Obama into a direct descendant of Al Gore and John Kerry, another card-carrying member of the cultural elite out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.

There are large chunks of the country where voters just dismiss Democrats outright, and for all the talk about a 50-state strategy, Obama is playing in the same sliver of 19-20 states that weren't enough to carry Gore or Kerry to the White House. Amidst all the hoopla, there was an undercurrent of gloom in Denver. What if he loses? Imagine the recriminations, I ventured to one political activist. The Hillary people will say, "I told you so."

"They're 48 percent of the party," he replied. "The other 52 percent will say she damaged him too much--and five or six of us will say, 'You should have let us do our job.'" This long-time activist was poised to head up a 527 that would have spent the summer attacking John McCain if the Obama campaign hadn't signaled it wanted the group shut down. Named for their designation in the tax code, 527s have been active on the Republican side on McCain's behalf, creating an undertow pulling Obama down. After ceding most of August to McCain and his attack dogs, Obama played catch-up in his acceptance speech Thursday night, departing from his usual lofty language to take his case directly to the GOP candidate. The show of steel was a welcome pivot from the high-mindedness of the last several weeks. "If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to be president, that's a debate I'd like to have," Obama declared to rousing applause.

Boosting Obama was McCain's announcement Friday that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate, which renders the debate over experience moot for the moment. If Obama is only three years out of the state senate in Illinois, Palin is a first-term governor, elected in '06, and before that her elective experience consisted of two terms on the Wasilla City Council, which she used as a springboard to become mayor. Wasilla's population is under 10,000. Is this the resume of somebody who could assume the presidency of the United States in an instant if that were necessary? This misguided bid for disaffected Hillary voters isn't likely to fly, but Palin's conservative views could help McCain in some parts of the country.

The voters most resistant to Obama's candidacy are white working-class people, the constituency that rallied to Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Originally dubbed Reagan Democrats, their economic circumstances suggest they would be more at home in the Democratic Party, but they vote Republican based on cultural issues. Pollster Stanley Greenberg has studied them for decades, returning periodically to Macomb County, Mich., a blue-collar union stronghold populated by autoworkers and ethnic Roman Catholics. Bill Clinton hired Greenberg in his '92 presidential race because of his groundbreaking research on how to win them back. Clinton lost Macomb by five points in '92 but carried the state. Since '96, Democrats have been getting about half the vote there. In Greenberg's latest survey, which he presented to a group of international observers at the Denver convention, Obama is losing Macomb by seven and winning the state by seven.

To get at the role race plays, Greenberg asked Macomb County voters how comfortable they are with Obama and McCain as president versus an unnamed Democrat or Republican. Obama under-performed his party, 48 percent to 54 percent, while McCain out-performed his party, 47 percent to 39 percent. Voters cite Obama's inexperience, which Greenberg believes is a "surrogate for other things going on in their head." Is Obama more like John F. Kennedy or Jesse Jackson? Only 19 percent said Jackson; the JFK number was 38 percent. "So there is an opening," Greenberg tells NEWSWEEK. "People think they can support him, but he's a mystery. Inexperience is about not knowing him."

Race is part of these voters' reluctance, but not the biggest piece. In six different focus groups when participants were asked what they remembered about the '60s, only two people mentioned the Detroit riots, a finding that surprised Greenberg. "It's as though racial history is out of their consciousness," he said. Their focus was on Vietnam and how returning soldiers were disrespected. These voters are angry about the economy, and they think the elites of both parties have sold them out. Obama doesn't connect on the kind of feel-your-pain level that could consolidate these voters, and they aren't sure they can trust him to keep them safe. His speech Thursday is a first step toward convincing voters he lives in their world, that he's ready to be president, and that change and hope are not just amorphous concepts, that he has a plan he will execute with the same skill that won him the nomination.

Clift: Dems Exhilarated But Nervous About Obama | U.S.
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