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Beyond Math to a Tougher Message for Obama

Time to move from change to a tougher tactic for Barack Obama? (AP).

By Dan Balz
Barack Obama awoke Wednesday to a new race for the Democratic nomination. To hear him explain Hillary Clinton's stunning victories in Ohio and Texas, Tuesday's results did little to change the basic trajectory of the race. He has more delegates and by the numbers, he still holds the higher ground. But arithmetic is not a message and inevitability is no more an argument for him than it was for her last fall.

Clinton won the two big states on Tuesday because they fit her better than Obama, because she campaigned harder than Obama and because she raised doubts about Obama. Obama lost, despite his superior resources and the momentum gained from winning 11 consecutive contests in February, because he lost both the economic and the national security arguments with his rival. Although he gained considerable ground on Clinton, the late-deciders broke decisively for her.

Obama is understandably riveted on the delegate count. It is his lifeline now that his campaign has hit another stretch of turbulence. Run the numbers every way you can and they still say he emerges from the primaries with more pledged delegates, more states won and perhaps more popular votes. But he cannot emerge with the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination. That too is the reality.

That leaves this race not only in the hands of voters in another dozen contests, including states like Mississippi, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon and West Virginia, but also, once again, in the hands of the roughly 800 superdelegates who are free to support whichever candidate they choose. They all will be judging Obama and Clinton on the quality of the campaigns they run from here forward and on their judgment as to which candidate would be the stronger nominee against John McCain in the fall. Obama will have to win that competition.

An overnight survey of around the country Democrats -- some backing Obama, some for Clinton and some neutral -- showed considerable consensus about what Obama must do to rebound from his losses in Texas and Ohio. In short it was: quit talking numbers and start getting tough.

"Obama needs to stop talking math and get much more aggressive in defining Senator Clinton," said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist. "The Obama campaign will need to use paid media to do that. Big complicated states have lots of working class, older voters, and rural voters who have been good for Senator Clinton. Senator Obama needs a message that takes Senator Clinton on with these voters."

"He clearly has not closed the deal and I don't think a math argument will be enough," noted a pro-Clinton Democrat. "Voters (not pundits) have sent a message that they are not completely comfortable. He has six weeks now to prove that he can pass the test and it will be good for the party to have that test. He is going to have to be more substantive and more specific."

"They ran a campaign here largely designed to run on national momentum to offset Hillary's advantage," a Texas Democrat wrote in an e-mail message. "It didn't work and even worse, I think they outspent her nearly 3 to 1... And, their momentum is now gone. This morning, Obama is now talking tactics, math, and sounding a lot like an insider. They have consistently been put in a position after surprise losses in big states of talking about how far behind they were and how they almost made it. You and I know that [is] amateurish to keep getting put in that trap. He now is in the tricky position of having to say, aggressively, "Let's look at that experience, Hillary.'"

A Democrat in Massachusetts said Obama needs to double down on substance to overcome Clinton's advantage on experience. "He's got money, he's got organization but there are deep doubts about him still. I could feel a bit of buyer's remorse creeping into this race in the last week. That's what happened last night. So now he has to prove gravitas as well as charm. McCain drips with gravitas."

"He has to hit Clinton hard for her past failures -- her refusal to accept compromise on health care that would have covered all children, leading to the loss of the Democratic Congress...," a Democrat who was aligned with one of the other candidates wrote. "He can hit her harder on the Iraq war, not only for not reading the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] and voting for the war, but also for her opposition to setting a timetable for withdrawal. Raise the specter of whether she really will withdraw from Iraq. List all the different positions she's had in the past year, they are legion...Obama can shut this down by showing he can win a fight. That's how you define your superiority as a candidate."

Obama certainly sounded as if he is prepared to get tougher with Clinton. He told reporters on his campaign plane Wednesday morning that he intends to challenge Clinton's national security credentials by questioning her experience in the way she attacked his in the final days of the campaign. But some Democrats believe she will continue to have the upper hand if the nomination battle becomes one of experience versus inexperience.

"Experience vs. change never worked," one Democrat noted. "Experience vs. inexperience did work. Now Obama has to make it a fight between change and the status quo."

Obama also said that, if she continues to encourage the press to vet him, he would raise ethical questions about her. He said he doubted that she "will be better able to withstand Republican attacks" and intends to join that debate.

His campaign followed that up with a new demand for Clinton to release her tax returns and a conference call in which his advisers pressed reporters to dig into her record. Obama senior adviser David Axelrod described Clinton as a "habitual non-discloser."

Getting tough is part of the new equation. Whether Obama has an economic message to counter Clinton's represents another crucial test. In Ohio, Clinton connected with economically downscale voters, as she has in other states. Obama began his career as a community organizer in Chicago dealing with workers who had lost their jobs when the steel mills shut down. Why he has not been more effective at making connections with voters like them is a question he and his advisers must be thinking about as they look ahead to Pennsylvania.

The delegate balance may not have shifted dramatically with Tuesday's results, but the race itself did. Obama once again is faced with the question of how and whether he can defeat Clinton. Democrats will be watching closely to see how he responds.

By Washington Post editors  |  March 5, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Primaries , The Democrats  
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