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Dan Balz's Take

Time For Obama to Step Up His Game


Obama in New Hampshire earlier this month. The Democratic candidates debate tonight in Hanover. (Getty)

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The latest University of New Hampshire poll came at an inauspicious, but perhaps useful, moment for Barack Obama. Coming on the eve of Wednesday's Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, the survey highlighted the degree to which his campaign badly needs a booster shot.

Obama is moving in the wrong direction--or at best not moving. Having entered the presidential campaign to great promise, he has yet to deliver fully on his potential. Watching Obama on the campaign trail is like watching an enormously gifted athlete, but one who seems to be holding something back until the moment the competition demands more. For Obama, that moment has arrived.

For the sake of comparison, look back to the contest between Al Gore and Bill Bradley eight years ago. Gore was the Hillary Clinton of that race--the favored front-runner, the candidate of the party establishment, the politician with the bigger network. Bradley was that year's Obama, the insurgent whose appeal for a different kind of politics struck a nerve among Democratic elites and independent voters--particularly in New Hampshire.

Gore began that race with a huge lead, both nationally and in New Hampshire, but by this time eight years ago, Bradley had nearly caught the front-runner in New Hampshire. Over the course of the summer of 1999, Bradley narrowed the then-vice president's margin from 45 points to 40 points. A UNH poll for WMUR-TV and CNN put Gore on notice that he wasn't going to win the nomination without fighting for it. Gore readjusted his campaign, took the fight to Bradley and eventually won.

The opposite has happened in the Democratic race this year. By all rights, New Hampshire ought to be one of the most fertile of the early states for Obama's candidacy. All polling shows that Obama's greatest strength is among better-educated, wealthier Democrats and among independents. The electorate here fits that profile. Education levels are higher than in other early states and the size of the independent vote here gives Obama a built-in audience for his new politics message of change.

But instead of closing in on Clinton, Obama has allowed her to use the summer months to widen her advantage over him and the rest of the Democratic field. What was a 9- percentage-point margin for Clinton over Obama in July has grown into a 23-point lead in September.

The poll suggests that Clinton's campaign time here has improved her image. Although she runs a distant third behind Obama and John Edwards on the question of who is the most likable candidate, she is now seen among Democrats almost as favorably as her two leading rivals. In April, the gap between those who viewed her favorably and those who viewed her unfavorably was 40 points; today it is 62 points.

On two other issues, who is the most electable and who has the experience to be president, Clinton has increased her advantage. More than half of those in the UNH-WMUR-CNN survey (54 percent) said she was the most electable in 2008. Just 13 percent cited Obama. Almost half (47 percent) said she has the right experience, while just 8 percent named Obama.

More discouraging for Obama was the question on who can bring needed change to the country. This is fundamental to Obama, the basis of his candidacy and the core of his message. He has crisscrossed the country arguing that the only way to deliver on universal health care or energy independence or an end to the war in Iraq is by changing the way Washington works. That, he tells his audiences, is as much about them as it is about him. If they mobilize behind his candidacy, together they can change the country.

The new poll shows the degree to which that message has not broken through. Asked who could best deliver change, 37 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents cited Clinton, 25 percent named Obama.

One poll is just that -- one single snapshot of a much more complex dynamic. Other polls may well show a somewhat closer race in New Hampshire. Even this poll showed fluidity in the Democratic electorate, with more than half (55 percent) said they were still trying to decide for certain for whom they'll vote in January.

That means that, while Clinton has a big lead here at the moment, events and performance by the candidates can still have a substantial effect on the eventual outcome. For Obama, Clinton and Edwards, that means the race here is far from over. But for Obama in particular, the results almost demand an acknowledgement that he needs something more than he has been doing.

What that is will be the subject of intense debate inside his campaign. Should he attack Clinton--and risk damaging his image as someone who would rescue the country from slash-and-burn politics? Can he persuade those Democrats still making up their minds that Clinton presents a bigger risk to the party as its nominee than he does? Should he try to make his candidacy even more about his initial opposition to the war in an effort to draw a stark distinction with Clinton, even though there is little evidence to date that such a strategy offers great hope for success?

At its heart, the question for Obama is as clear today as it was when he joined the race last winter. Can he persuade voters that he has the right combination of freshness, toughness and judgment to sit in the Oval Office?

Obama has won hearts all over the country -- demonstrated once again today at a big rally in Peterborough in southwest New Hampshire -- with the promise of something different. But that promise needs to be filled in something more concrete. That is not an easy thing to do, as he has found over the course of many months. But to cross the ultimate threshold, he will need to find a way to do so -- starting soon.

--Dan Balz

Posted at 10:26 AM ET on Sep 26, 2007  | Category:  Dan Balz's Take
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"Of course last week, he voted "present" but didn't vote in the senate resolution to condemn moveon.org's advertisement in the NYT."


That's right, he didn't vote. He believes the Senate shouldn't be wasting their time and their prestige voting about newspaper ads when there is important legislation to debate and vote on. It's just another example of his strong moral fiber and how he wants to get beyond the mind-numbing partisanship of today's politics.

Posted by: knuckleroad | September 28, 2007 1:40 AM

Lame poll, lame pollsters, probably another $200,000 donor to Hillary's "Presidential Exploratory" committee like the pollster who owns the company polling for CNN! That pollster's even put a building up and named it after Bill Clinton - in India! And gtgunning, get real - Obama won Illinois to become Senator, not Chicago - or did you not know that the entire state has to vote for the State Senator? How against the Iraq War do you think Illinois farmers were in 2002? Obama not spoke out against the war when everyone, candidate and legislator, was falling all over themselves to show their patriotism - he predicted to the letter every single fiasco that would come of it if we did sign on with the Oil Pigs, oops, I mean Prez and VP. Edwards was a co-sponsor of the Iraq War and spoke up for the war vehemently for 18 months, oblivious to the disaster in front of his very eyes! Hillary didn't bother to read the intelligence report (neither did Edwards); they just voted how their funders wanted them to - military funders, that is. Obama's our only hope have a Prez owing lobbyists and nothing and owing us everything. Edwards, with his pathetic recent conversion to advocate for the poor - including plans to displace yet more poor people in suburban areas where they'll never be able to afford transportation to /from urban jobs - and loftiest rhetoric of any of the frontrunners but Kucinich with the least to back up his rhetoric, won't inspire any northern and eastern voters to turn out. Republicans win against Hillary and Edwards. Obama turns out the voters. That's what counts - if the votes are counted!

Posted by: VCubed | September 27, 2007 9:03 AM

The media poodles, unable to analyze actual issues, heads in the sand, dizzy from spin, and largely controlled by financial interests, gave us the Iraq invasion, and the Patriot Act, and now they are trying to give us Clinton, using all classical techniques (she is inevitable...). Rupert Murdoch and George W. Bush have both practically endorsed her as the candidate. Do you need more evidence? Those with traditional Republicans values are much more in favor of Obama. But the powerful unscrupulous ones who pull the strings are in horror of him because he is the their worst nightmare: the real thing. Obama is talking truth to Wall Street. You can watch it on his web-site. He has the capacity to quietly and gradually revolutionize both parties and the whole public debate in this country by being elected. You will never get that from Clinton. Can you think of anything more terrifying for those who benefit from the status quo? There is really no other way to interpret the current situation. I have liberal friends who dismiss Obama as "fluff" without having read a single thing he has said, without having any familiarity with his achievements. It's sad, but that's how things work here. The same people (all with college degrees and living in the Bay Area) believed the line that Saddam Hussein was going to blow us up if we didn't invade Iraq. Stupidity is not the unique province of the right, folks. But hold on: this intriguing story is going to get much better in the coming months. Mark my words.
As for Rudy beating Obama in a debate? I don't think so. You put scrupulous and unscrupulous in the same room and people can see it with their own eyes.

Posted by: tony848 | September 27, 2007 5:21 AM

OBAMA WILL HAVE THE STATE OF MINNESOTA AND MY VOTE FOR SURE WE ALL WENT(D) BEFORE AND WE WON'T CHANGE LIKE CLINTON'S WIFE!

Posted by: sweetangela | September 27, 2007 4:12 AM

What people should realize in voting for either Obama or Hillary in the primaries is who will be more likely to win in the final election, and the answer would be Obama. Clinton and Obama each have traits and opinions that many including myself agree with and they are both incredibly intelligent people, but Obama is more likely to "win over the hearts" of undecided voters. Republicans already have and will tenfold attempt to undo Hillary Clinton's image, and Obama's traits appeal to independent voters. For voters who truly want to see change and see a democratic president, Obama is the choice if for no other reason than that he is more likely to win the general election. Both candidates have advantages and disadvantages, but if the democratic party wants someone who can win, they should nominate Obama. If they are smart, the winner of the nomination will select the other as a vice presidential running mate to balance the ticket, which will undoubtedly create some needed buzz and increase votes. The other possibility for Obama or Hillary would be to choose someone like Bill Richardson as a running mate and select the other as a potential secretary of state. The fact is, if democrats and liberal independents want a democratic candidate who can win, the choice is clear.

Posted by: samc42 | September 26, 2007 11:03 PM

Who do you believe won the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Debate? ------->

http://www.youpolls.com/details.asp?pid=597

.

Posted by: PollM | September 26, 2007 10:32 PM

i don,t beleave obama will ever win in this election

Posted by: lgmf | September 26, 2007 8:30 PM

I am somewhat unimpressed that the idea that Obama had the courage to speak out against the war to his wildly anti-war district. I don't agree with Hillary's votes, but history has some ugly lessons about what a female leader must do to not be perceived as a frail reed. People haven't gotten to know Obama's positives yet, but the same goes for his negatives. I look at him and think "this man will be macerated by weak on defense attack ads right before the election."

Posted by: priestd | September 26, 2007 8:28 PM

If Clinton wins the nomination, I really hope Obama runs as an Independent. If Clinton wins the best Democrats can hope for is a solid 24-28 years of Clinton/Bush. For God's sake, just keep digging it deeper. Let's have Gingrich vs. Clinton and really move forward.

Posted by: gtgunning | September 26, 2007 7:28 PM

Tonight in the debate, I want to hear Tim Russert ask Hillary again, as he did on his Sunday morning show, "Is it fair to say that, on the most important vote in your time in the Senate, that you were wrong?" She gave her standard 'non-answer' which was "I take responsibility for my vote."

I've been a supporter of Obama since February, when he announced his candidacy for the presidency outside the Illinois Statehouse where Lincoln spoke. It was extremely inspiring and spoke to my heart about what America needs and what America can be again.

What I like about Obama is his wisdom, courage, commitment to social justice, stand on environment, world view, and most of all, his authenticity.

Zbignew Brzezinski, one of the most distinguished foreign policy experts in America today, recently formally endorsed him for president, and he said he did so because of Obama's good judgment. He noted how President Kennedy was advised by those all around him to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And yet, this young, wise president had the good judgment to say no to them, and use a naval blockade, instead. He saved us all from an all-out nuclear war! THAT is the good judgment Brzezinski is talking about.

Obama spoke out time and again against this "rash, ideological war of choice". He did it in 2002, one year before the war, and every year since then. Everything Obama predicted about the war came true. He said we'd be in a quagmire that would drain our treasury and cost too many lives. He said it would destroy our moral standing in the world. All this, sadly, has happened.

The wisdom that Senator Obama has shown is what our country needs in a president. In contrast, Senators Clinton, Biden, Edwards and Dodd ALL voted for the war and Sen. Clinton didn't even take the time to read the 90 page NIE (National Intelligence Estimate), that was given to all senators, even with 10 days to read the report, before casting the most important vote of her life. That is a double tragedy.

First, not reading the report before sending other people's kids off to die or get maimed in a war represents a gross dereliction of duty. Second, she did not ask the hard questions before the vote and, fearing looking weak, cast the wrong vote. Obama gets my vote because the single most important quality in a president is judgment. He's got it.

Time served in Washington does not equate with good judgment, as so many of the other Democratic contenders, long-time Washington insiders, have proven.

In Obama, we have someone who will unite our country and yes, the world. The moment he is inaugurated, the healing begins.

Posted by: pacifica1 | September 26, 2007 6:53 PM

Except for incumbents running for a second term, NO ONE comes to the White House with experience!
Billl Clinton was as young as Obama when he came to the White House. What experience did he have running the country?
Hillary has been in the Senate for 6 yrs, Sen Edawrds for 4 yrs and Obama 3 yrs. Sen Dodd and Biden have been there for much longer. If experience in the Senate was a BIG deal, then Sen Dodd or Sen Biden or even Gravel should the Democrats' nominee! The 8 eight yrs Hillary spent as 1st lady don't count...unless you think that Laura is now best suited to take over from Bush since she will have FRESH experience in the White House.

Posted by: danielasmith98 | September 26, 2007 6:35 PM

Rudy vs. Barak? Rudy would destroy him. Presidential election campaigns are nasty, ruthless and always end up going negative big time. All Barak's smiles and nice guy image won't save him; he'll have to get tough and who does tough better than Rudy? Maybe Hillary, with her army of hugely experienced aides, but no way, Obama. Don't make the mistake that the Tory opposition made here in the UK, putting youth and a fresh faced "nice" guy up against a seasoned political bruiser.
Like it or not, only Clinton has the toughness, experience and back up to stand up to the Republican machine.
Sadly, Obama has jumped to soon, too young, when America badly needs a wisdom and experience in the Oval Office to somehow begin repairing the terrible damage Bush will leave in his wake (God only knows what the final year of his wildly irresponsible , devil may care presidency will add to the wreckage).

Harlan Leyside

Posted by: harlanleyside | September 26, 2007 6:08 PM

Obama doesn't get the main stream press like Clinton. She proposed legislation last week on health care. Big deal. Obama did that last spring. Very similar, with one major difference. Clinton's plan is mandatory. Who needs that.
Obama's grassroots movement is just getting started. The primaries aren't for five months. Five months, now if you care about the election you think you want to volunteer much sooner than now.
The point is that no matter what kind of spin is put on the debate. Obama's campaign is just getting started because its all grass roots.
Hillary is old news and all over the network news, kudos to Murdoch. Obamas recognition will best come by seeing him speak and grass root volunteers helping locally with the campaign. That's a slow train coming but it's coming down the tracks. As for putting so much weight on the debate, give me a break.

Posted by: johnreagan30 | September 26, 2007 5:52 PM

Obama is the only Democrate today who has appears not to be afraid to tell the nation that it is "time for the truth" on a host of current issues such as the Iraq war, tax cuts, the injustices of the prison industrial complex, the obscene rate of incarceration of young African-American men, the waste and senselessness of the missile defense scheme, and the disgrace that one in five children in this country still lives in poverty. Instead of canidates falling over each other to take credit for the least offensive parts of the GOP's agenda, Democrats should get back to basics.

Posted by: aaronkarmin | September 26, 2007 5:33 PM

It would have been nice if Obama could have been present to vote against the Kyl/Liebermen amendment today; basically giving Bush carte blanche to attack Iran.

Of course last week, he voted "present" but didn't vote in the senate resolution to condemn moveon.org's advertisement in the NYT.

I'm sorry, but how is Obama a departure from "politics as usual"? That does it for me, I'm registering as an independent.

Posted by: steve.vaughan | September 26, 2007 5:23 PM

Those poll numbers ignore the following:
1. pollsters contact people that have fixed line phones. Most of Obama's supporters are young people that do not have fixed line phones.
2. pollsters call in the early evening and most young people are not likely to be at home at that time.
Daniela

Posted by: danielasmith98 | September 26, 2007 4:49 PM

Obama just doesn't have the right stuff.

It's as simple as that.

Posted by: ram9478 | September 26, 2007 3:52 PM

The Right Wing wants Hilary to be the Dem nominee SO badly!! Nothing will mobilize the conservative right more. They'll even vote for a pro-abortion, anti-gun Catholic rather than see HC in the WH. They HATE Hilary. If the Republicans can just get the "left-wing" press to help them get her the Dem nomination, they'll steal another election and the corporate slurping at the Federal Trough will continue.

Posted by: thebobbob | September 26, 2007 2:23 PM

peterdc:
"I think that the term "won hearts" is a good one. Everyone seems to like Obama and feel good when they listen to him. The problem for him is that it seems Hillary Clinton has "won Minds". She is the candidate that when you really think about it has the experience and total ability to walk into the Oval office on January 20, 2009 and become an effective President."

I disagree. Clinton has not shown herself to be especially effectual in the past, with an utter failure in implementing universal health care under her husband's administration and very little of substance that she sponosered passing through the Senate. The idea that the experience she's had is desirable leaves me scratching my head.

Now, as for me, Obama won over my mind before he won over my heart, because he truly is the best Democratic candidate. He was one of the few who actually had the judgement to oppose the Iraq War before it was authorized and asked the tough questions. He also understands the nuances of foreign policy that seem to elude other anti-war candidates like Kucinich.

The problem Obama faces is that it is very easy to push out policy proposals that are appealing to the Democratic base, something he and the rest of the candidates have done thus far. So, I think they feel they need to play to one of his strengths: his charisma.

Personally, I think he's got the strongest policy proposals in total of the Democratic group, but just recently, Senator Clinton showed how easy it was to get national press by putting out a health care plan with ideas that were remarkably similar to those put forth by Edwards and Obama months ago and still be able to claim all the credit.

So while I hate to admit it, Obama does have to focus on emotional factors rather than just pushing through sound policy, which he is quite adept at doing.

I think overall, Obama's weakness comes from a lack of familiarity among potential voters with who Obama is and what he stands for. It's early and most people haven't done their research. Everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is and most also know who John Edwards is, though there's less familiarity there too.

From virtual anonymity 3 years ago to 20% the New Hampshire in such little time is actually rather remarkable and I expect that after Iowa and with the help of Obama's great organizational strengh, we will see those numbers climb, even if they are stagnating now.

One only needs to look at this Zogby poll from 4 years ago to realize how much the current poll means:
http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=750

Pollster John Zogby: "This is stunning. Dean leads 43-20 among Democrats and 35 to 11 among Independents. He hits 40 among all age groups, union and non-union voters. His lead is 57-17 among self-described progressives, 50-20 among liberals, and 34-14 among moderates. Married voters give him a 38-13 edge and singles a 45-21 point lead. He holds huge leads among all education groups, among investors and non-investors, men and women. This qualifies as juggernaut status. Can he be stopped?"

Indeed, could Dean be stopped. Can Clinton be stopped?

Posted by: alethiareg | September 26, 2007 2:16 PM

Watch what's happening on the ground. Obama is beating HC 4:1 for donors and $10 million in fund raising. Those donors aren't going to sit at home on election day. They don't want someone to fight the Right Wing slime machine. After 7 years of lies and distortions, only 30% of the public believes anything a Republican says these days. It's time for a change. Send your reporters out on the ground and listen. One person asked, "Can you smell what Barak is cooking?"

Posted by: thebobbob | September 26, 2007 1:54 PM

55% of voters undecided. unions and groups and elected officials 'holding off' on their endorsements. its like the whole country is on hold. its like everyone wants to support barack (or they would have already gone for hillary) and they are just waiting for someone to say its 'okay' just who do you think they are waiting for? its you washington post. all the articles about the 'inevitable winner hillary' and constant barrage by poll statistics almost daily.

if nothing much is changing i dont call that news. everyone is afraid of getting slamed in the media for supporting something unpopular. its hard for a politician to endorse beacuse if they upset their voters its job suicide.

its like the people themselves have to come out and take the risk that the papers, web news, and television are reluctant to say. how about you let stories rule the news and not a bunch of phone pollers getting paid to prove something.

volunteers show up in droves of hundreds. crowds turn out in thousands. contributors in hundreds of thousands. money in the millions. open votes, online polls, and people cry out for obama. but those phone callers still dictate the winner on the nightly news. disgusting.

Posted by: ourgameorders | September 26, 2007 1:40 PM

I just have to laugh when I read these poll results. I was watching CNN last night and in blazing, scrolling leters across the bottom of the screen it said "CLINTON WIDENING LEAD IN NEW HAMPSHIRE" ( or something to that effect)
Then it went on to explain it was based on about 300 likely voters with home telephones ( in small font) They are basing this assumption that 300 people who were likely to vote that had a home phone will accurately reflect reality ? Are you kidding me ? We have the polls which say one thing and then we have record turn out to hear him speak, record donations from record individuals and new endorsements from key individuals on an almost daily basis. Obama has plenty of time for more Americans to become familar with him.Watch.

Posted by: eSPO1 | September 26, 2007 1:34 PM

"Obama has won hearts all over the country... with the promise of something different."

Not this heart because I haven't surrendered my ability to think critically.

For any one who thinks Obama's the guy, this is the same guy who spoke out against the Iraq War in 2002--and yet has voted for every single funding bill since arriving in the Senate (with the exception of the May supplemental, when he basically tiptoed in 15 minutes before voting ended to cast a symbolic no vote.)

This is the same guy who wanted to vote in favor of John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court--even though Roberts had a documented history of positions hostile to women and to civil rights--because he liked Roberts intellect. I suppose we should all thank the chief of staff who talked him out of it.

This is the same guy who proposed a health insurance policy that doesn't cover all Americans and will pay for it by allowing some of Bush's tax cuts to expire.

This is the same guy who proposed a sweeping tax reform policy--that doesn't include reforming the AMT--and will pay for it by allowing some of Bush's tax cuts to expire. So which policy will he pay for by allowing tax cuts to expire?

The reason Obama is stalling is people are starting to figure out that while he can give a great speech, his promise is largely manufactured.

Posted by: cab91 | September 26, 2007 12:31 PM

I think that the term "won hearts" is a good one. Everyone seems to like Obama and feel good when they listen to him. The problem for him is that it seems Hillary Clinton has "won Minds". She is the candidate that when you really think about it has the experience and total ability to walk into the Oval office on January 20, 2009 and become an effective President.

The other problem that Obama has is with his message of change. No one in their right mind doesn't look at Hillary Clinton and recognize that by electing her we are voting for "Change". She has that by just being a woman.

Anyone that saw her tour de force on the five news shows Sunday has to admire her camapign and often campaigns are a sign of how someone will do once they are elected.

And what must be galling to Obama is how now even some of the most admired African American politicians are turning out to endorse Hillary Clinton's campaign. Two in recent days are William Grey, a former Pennsylvania Congressperson and Anthony Brown the current Maryland Lt. Governor who happened to go to law school with Obama. These men I believe wanted Obama to do well and held off with endorsements till now.

There are about 4 1/2 months till the Iowa caucuses, but unless something major changes, it looks like Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and then the President. Even the SEIU which John Edwards has been working on for two years has held off their endorsement. One can only conclude it was becasue they see the writing on the wall.

This country can do far worse than electing Hillary Clinton as President and from my point of view it would be hard to do any better.

Posted by: peterdc | September 26, 2007 12:16 PM

It's fairly accepted that Obama is a "warmer" person than Clinton is. It's an image problem the Clinton folks have been battling with from day one. (Just Google the terms "clinton" "warm" "image.")

Dan Balz is just reflecting that general consensus the public has reached, despite the Clinton campaign's attempts at image control.


Posted by: renatarollins | September 26, 2007 12:09 PM

"Obama has won hearts all over the country with the promise of something different. But that promise needs to be filled in something more concrete."

No Dan, Obama isn't just PROMISE he has concrete results in the US and IL Senate and throughout his life. Concrete policies. Beefy speeches. Sadly you are just part of the MSM that is controlled by the Clintons (like GQ pulling an unfavorable article after pressure from the Clintons).

Now if only this talented man could stop campaigning today, take that talent, intellect, and charima, move into the White House and start to fix the messes that the CLINTON and Bush administrations have left us.

Posted by: ESR1 | September 26, 2007 11:48 AM

"Obama has won hearts all over the country "

That's an interesting characterization, "won hearts". It connotes warmth, sincerity, and authenticity. It sort of jumped out at me, especially in light of Mr. Balz's recent post about whether or not Sen Clinton can be "stopped". I'm not a partisan of either candidate, but I resent the injection of this sort of meaningless narrative into such an important discussion. I wonder if Mr. Balz will ever refer to the winning of the hearts of Sen Clinton's supporters. I'm fairly certain, and supported by a search of the web site, no political reporter for the Post ever has.

Posted by: zukermand | September 26, 2007 10:51 AM

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