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Chicago Sun-Times - Obama Getting Tough as Going Gets Rough

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Chicago Sun-Times - Obama Getting Tough as Going Gets Rough

By Jennifer Hunter

As he makes his run for president, Barack Obama often talks about his background.

He talks about his uniqueness, his Kenyan and American heritage, his childhood spent in both Indonesia and Hawaii. This was his strategy: to introduce himself as a Washington outsider but someone who understood the global stage and who believed in consensus.

For months this strategy had little variation. Over and over, during the winter, spring and early summer, in stump speeches across the nation, Obama talked about his uniqueness, his understanding of the world outside America and his idea of knitting the country together in a common cause, eliminating the rancor and divisiveness that had been polarizing the country, particularly since George W. Bush entered office.

And he got huge crowds out to see him, as he is so often wont to note in his speeches: 12,000 people in Springfield to hear his presidential announcement speech; 20,000 people in Austin, Texas; 10,000 people in Iowa City; thousands and thousands everywhere he went: to Oakland, Calif., to Las Vegas, all coming to hear what Obama described as his message of hope.

And it worked well, initially. He was considered a fresh voice, a candidate of the young, someone in the mold of John F. Kennedy. And then the crowds started to dissipate. Obama didn't do as well as his aides had anticipated in the presidential debates and forums. He paused a second or two too long at times. He seemed awkward. He made a few gaffes. A poised Hillary Clinton was often declared the winner.

Promoting detailed policies

And when he went to the Iowa State Fair in mid-August, the local television station had a booth in which fairgoers were invited to show support by putting corn kernels in jars. Clinton had 4,342 kernels in hers; Edwards had 3,523 in his; Obama had 2,846 in his, less than Republican contender Mitt Romney.

The polls have also reflected Clinton's national dominance. CNN's in early August: Clinton 40 percent, Obama 21 percent. Rasmussen's in late August: Clinton 39 percent, Obama 23 percent. People were getting to know Obama, but they weren't certain about his ability to don the presidential cloak.

The Aug. 27 Rasmussen Report did state: "Clinton is the clear and dominant front-runner similar to Walter Mondale in 1984. There are people both in and out of the party who wonder if she is the stronger general election candidate. Some point to Obama's charismatic entry onto the national political scene while others note that Edwards does better than all other Democrats in general election match-ups."

And this is what Obama is holding onto as he shifts the gears of his strategy, taking bolder attacks against Clinton (note his description of her as "Bush-Cheney lite" on foreign affairs); retreating from many debates and presidential forums; presenting more detailed policies, as in his recent outline about how to resurrect a New Orleans still suffering two years after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina.

Kerry got boost from Iowa

His media strategist David Axelrod told me during a recent trip to Iowa that while Obama "still has to work to tell people who he is," the campaign is at a different stage now and "people are asking, prospectively, where are you going to take the country?"

A day after Axelrod spoke, Obama debated the other Democratic contenders in Des Moines. He turned in his best performance yet, and an ABC poll taken just before the debate showed him at 28 percent, with Clinton and Edwards tied at 27 percent in Iowa.

During our chat, Axelrod reminded me that John Kerry was "at 4 percent in the polls before he won the Iowa caucus," adding, "I am happy to concede these polls in August. I am more interested in January."

Will Obama's shift in strategy work? Will his more muscular messages convince the undecided that, as English poet William Blake once noted, innocence (read Washington inexperience) is no less valuable than experience, it is just a less distorted view of the world?

If caucus attendees and primary voters are dubious of Clinton's capacity to defeat the Republicans, Obama's tougher strategy may well give him the push needed in the early-voting states. The game is certainly far from over.


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