Wolffe: The Obama Challenge

Standing in front of a rust-red barn in Peterborough, N.H., Barack Obama finds himself in a strange situation.

He can still draw a hefty crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in the middle of a working day. Yet the polls suggest he's trailing by 20 points in the Granite State.

He's on track once again to beat Hillary Clinton in fund-raising for the third quarter in a row. Yet the pundits have universally declared that he's lost momentum.

If all that weren't perplexing enough, he's suffering from a head cold on a stiflingly hot late-September day.

In a few hours, Obama (with congested sinuses) will walk on stage for the latest in an endless line of debates—an exchange of sound bites that have solidified Clinton's image as a confident and polished candidate. Yet again, Obama's aides promise that the Illinois senator will draw a sharp distinction between his own agenda for change—to reform the country's politics—and the New York senator whose slogans now include "ready for change."

"The voters in New Hampshire or places like Iowa are discerning enough to know that you can't just print CHANGE on a sign and hold it up and think you are all of a sudden for change," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. "Not to mention the jujitsu of saying that you are the most experienced candidate who can work the system but that you are also for change."

Gibbs may have a point, but it doesn't seem to have sunk in with voters yet. In Iowa, polls through August and September have suggested that the race is a three-way statistical tie between Clinton, Obama and Edwards. In New Hampshire, Clinton is in an even stronger position than she is in national polls.

Why is the road that much tougher for Obama up north? "In New Hampshire, we still have name-recognition issues," says Gibbs. "The Clintons were trudging around up here 20 years ago." Of course, the fact that it's a conservative state without a ton of ethnic diversity could play a role, as well. The Obama campaign only bought its first airtime in New Hampshire this week with the ad "Believe"—in which Obama talks about ending "decades of division and deadlock" as the camera seems to move through a doorway. The desired effect: cross the threshold and trust your hopes to the new guy.

The commercial is a sharp contrast to the first Clinton ad in New Hampshire, which does not use the candidate's voice. Instead a voice-over begins by promising that "we will change things in this country," accompanied by pictures of Clinton at rallies and faintly patriotic music. The desired effect: the presidential aura of a natural-born leader.

In hopes of altering that picture, Obama has stuffed his stump speeches with references to the Clinton era. But they don't name names, and they aren't exactly a punch in the solar plexus. In Peterborough, he talks about the importance of universal health care: "If we're going to change it this time," he notes, "it's not enough to just have plans. We have to build a movement to overcome the special interests."

Now and then, he gets a little grittier. "I recognize that people in Washington really value what they are doing," he says. "But I have to remind them that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had two of the longest resumes in Washington, and they didn't turn out so well. They led us into the biggest foreign-policy disaster in a generation. A long resume doesn't guarantee good judgment. It doesn't say much about character."

There's no doubt who he's talking about-but do voters respond to this kind of indirection? "Change in America doesn't happen from the top down; it happens from the bottom up," he says. "You've got to understand that one of the things that people are counting on, the people who are benefiting from the system as it is, is that you're cynical people. To them, politics is a game. They like the system as it is and are counting on you to turn away from the process and that things don't change."

Hillary Clinton, who kicked off her fall campaign in New Hampshire with a speech about change and experience on Labor Day, hasn't suffered yet. One recent poll by the Pew Research Center encapsulated Obama's challenge. Voters were asked which words apply to the leading candidates of both parties. Obama beat Clinton handily on being energetic, honest, friendly, optimistic and even-tempered. But he trailed on being compassionate, and he lost heavily on being smart and tough.

Obama's aides believe that Clinton has topped out in the polls. Despite her extensive name recognition, she hasn't been able to crack 40 percent in soundings measuring who should be the Democratic nominee. Moreover, in head-to-head polls against the leading Republicans, Clinton and Obama fare equally well.

Maybe so. But until Obama stops crab-walking around his opponent and starts scoring some direct hits, Clinton will continue to enjoy her lead.