(2 of 2)
The Obama campaign says it isn't worried. "We've tried to pace this thing the right way and keep our blinders on," says Axelrod, fully embracing the hoary horse-race metaphor. "We're pursuing a strategy that aims at doing well in Iowa and going on from there." And lately Obama seems to have shifted into a different gear, one that suggests some urgency to gain ground. His debate performances have gotten sharper. He has a new, edgier stump speech that pounds harder at his theme of change and attempts to paint Clinton as what his strategists call a quasi-incumbent. Obama is embracing a more populist approach. His speech to Service Employees International Union members helped persuade them to hold off on an expected endorsement of Edwards.
Obama's advisers argue that his strengths aren't necessarily going to show up in the polls. Campaign manager Plouffe says the younger voters who are being drawn to Obama are less likely to register in surveys of likely voters because they have cell phones, aren't home much in the early evening when pollsters call, and aren't on the lists of those who have voted in primaries or attended caucuses. Even political veterans are impressed with what they are seeing of Obama's operation on the ground. In South Carolina, an early-primary state where 30% of the population is black, his young volunteers are out knocking on doors every weekend. "It is a new crowd," says former South Carolina Democratic chairman Donald Fowler, "and it is the most methodical voter-canvassing project I have ever seen in South Carolina."
Still, Clinton holds a commanding lead in South Carolina and probably will continue to do so--absent "an exogenous factor that intervenes to shake things up, a significant mistake or a revelation," says Fowler. The question for Obama: Does he wait for such an eventuality--or make one happen?