Barack Obama has just about everything going for him. At a time when the country is cranky and in the mood for a change, his is a fresh, attractive face and an inspirational message. Wherever he goes, the Illinois Senator draws huge, adoring crowds. He is raising money faster than any Democrat ever has--and from more people, including some 75,000 new donors just since June. He is building a top-notch, disciplined campaign organization, right down to the county level. His campaign has 31 offices in Iowa alone and claims this is twice as many as anyone else. What's more, his chief opponent is one of the most polarizing figures in politics. So it seems only fair to ask: Why is Obama's candidacy still idling?
It has been more than seven months since Obama declared his presidential candidacy, evoking Abraham Lincoln in a soaring speech on the grounds of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. But up to this point, there have been few signs that he poses a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. Her lead in national polls has solidified in the double digits, and her sure-footed campaign for the Democratic nomination is starting to take on the sheen of inevitability. Obama remains well behind her everywhere but in Iowa, site of the first presidential contest, where the two are locked in a tight race with former Senator John Edwards. And while both are looking to break a historic barrier--his of race, hers of gender--Obama's is proving to be the more delicate challenge, as shown by questions over his response to the Jena 6 racial controversy in Louisiana.
Obama is not the first thoughtful Democrat to capture the fancy of the party's upscale élites, convincing them he represents a new direction for their party. There was Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Bradley in 2000 and Howard Dean four years ago. But the outcome has always been the same when these phenomena have come up against more conventional rivals who appeal more explicitly to the populist voters that make up the Democratic Party's base. So while the Obama brand has a certain cachet--celebrities like Halle Berry have been photographed around Los Angeles wearing Obama T shirts--Obama the candidate is having a hard time breaking out.
Part of the problem lies with Obama's low-key speaking delivery, an approach that surprises listeners who know him best (and often only) from his roof-raising keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "His style is so cerebral and so cool that it just doesn't appeal to a wide segment of the Democratic Party," says an adviser to a rival campaign. "They want to like him, but he just isn't connecting with them." And Obama has had a harder time cultivating a down-home image than his opponents. A few weeks ago, he skipped a candidate forum sponsored by aarp in Iowa--a state where 64% of those who attended the Democratic caucuses in 2004 are over 50--to appear at a fund raiser in Atlanta with R&B recording star Usher. Afterward, Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote: "There wasn't a big winner of Thursday night's debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, but there was a clear loser--Barack Obama." At a rural-issues forum on a farm outside Adel, Iowa, Obama sympathized with the plight of farmers this way: "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?" (That high-end grocery store chain doesn't have any locations in Iowa.)
The Obama campaign has staked a lot on Iowa. "I don't think the national polls will move at all until Iowa, absent some seismic event," says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. Obama's advisers say he doesn't have to win there, just beat expectations. In 1972, Iowa gave George McGovern a big boost in momentum, even though he finished 13 points behind Edmund Muskie. And Georgia's obscure former Governor went from "Jimmy Who?" to front runner in 1976 on the strength of coming in 9 points behind "Uncommitted."
Putting so much on the outcome of a single state is a big gamble, however, and there are plenty of Democrats who argue privately that the Illinois Senator is making a mistake by holding himself above the fray and praying for Clinton to slip. "He's got to go out there and take this from her," says a prominent strategist who is not affiliated with any candidate. "His is a subtle and nuanced campaign, and this is not a subtle and nuanced business." Going on the attack against Clinton, however, would undercut Obama's claim to be a different kind of politician. And in a multicandidate race, it might simply create an opening for Edwards.
That's why the campaign pledges that Obama will resist the inevitable calls of the political class for more conflict and will engage in what his chief political strategist, David Axelrod, euphemistically calls the "vigorous comparative processes" on its own timetable and in its own way. "There is a bloodlust out there. People want us to eviscerate her, if for nothing else than the sport of it," says Axelrod. "But how we draw the distinction is important, and we're not going to get pushed into gratuitous exchanges to satisfy the peanut-gallery pundits."
And then, of course, there is the biggest unknowable: What will black voters, the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, do when forced to choose between their longstanding allegiance to the Clintons and the prospect of seeing the first African American in the White House? Pollsters say black voters appear deeply divided, with Obama winning among younger and male African-Americans and Clinton running stronger among older African-American women. But pollsters also say that could change if Obama's overall prospects improve.
At the same time, those voters hold their breath when Obama is asked to comment on something like the Jena 6 case. He walks a fine line, demonstrating that he is connected to the African-American community without appearing to have an agenda driven by that constituency. "Race is not just an issue in the back of the minds of white voters," says longtime Democratic activist Donna Brazile, an African American who was Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager. "It really is a concern with black voters. They're worried about whether the country is ready for a black President. They're pessimistic ... He has the electability problem with black voters too."