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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

By Washington Post editors  |  September 26, 2007; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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