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Melting morale: Supporters wonder whether Obama can rally

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David Broder
October 25, 2007
— These are difficult days for supporters of Barack Obama. This city is filled with people who have voted for, worked for, contributed to, and, in many cases, prayed for the success of the young senator from Illinois. The struggle he has had in trying to overtake Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination is wearing on their morale.

Last weekend, I heard them tell each other that while the race started months ago, it is still early going; that the crucial days in Iowa and New Hampshire are still ahead; and that there is time for Obama to close with a rush, as he did when he came from behind to capture the nomination for his Senate seat in 2004.


But the steady drumbeat of polls showing Clinton with more support than all the other Democrats combined—and twice as much as Obama—is taking a toll. In their private moments, they wonder whether even Obama, as gifted as he is, can pull off this feat.


Such doubts can afflict any trailing candidate’s campaign, but they are particularly pronounced—and poignant—in this case. Obama burst onto the national stage with such high expectations, fueled by his remarkable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, that nothing, including the presidency, seemed to be beyond his reach.


The elevated stature he enjoyed nationally was nothing compared to the near reverence he commands among his friends here. Those I met who have worked closely with him through the past decade in politics, community affairs or the anti-war movement exhaust the list of superlatives in speaking about him and his wife, Michelle.


They see Obama as someone uniquely positioned to heal a divided nation—and to change the image of America in the world, simply by virtue of his own history and personality. They can visualize the headlines and television coverage around the globe if he were elected to the White House.


Among the Obama faithful, Hillary Clinton is not reviled. Indeed, there is a good deal of admiration for the way she has conducted herself in the campaign.


But at every turn, Obama’s people feel that he has been outmaneuvered and outsmarted by Clinton’s timing and tactics. Nothing is more painful to them—or more typical—than what happened Oct. 2.


That date was the fifth anniversary of the speech that Obama gave to a rally outside Chicago City Hall, called to mobilize opposition to the looming war with Iraq. In the speech, which has been quoted many times, Obama, then eyeing a Senate campaign, defied public opinion and decried what he called a “dumb” war.


He has often cited his prescience on that issue as the best evidence that, despite his short tenure in Washington, he has the judgment to make the right calls on crucial questions of national security.


The Obama campaign, therefore, announced that the fifth anniversary would be a special day for them, the date of a major foreign policy address. After some debate, the campaign decided not to stage a repetition of the outdoor rally but rather to have him speak in a college auditorium, a better setting for a thoughtful address.


The speech he delivered at DePaul University here was as serious a discussion of the lessons of Iraq and the future of American foreign policy as anyone could wish. And, as I was repeatedly reminded by the Obama people, it got next to no national press coverage. It was briefly summarized on Page 8 of The Washington Post, Page 11 of the Boston Globe and Page 20 of The New York Times.


Why? Because the Clinton campaign, with exquisite timing, that same morning released its latest-quarter fund-raising totals, which put her ahead of Obama for the first time in the money race. The Page 1 stories in the next day’s Times and Post were simple: Clinton, leading all the polls, now leads in campaign finances, as well.


The pessimists in the Obama camp worry that never again will they have such an opportunity to highlight his early opposition to the war—in contrast to Clinton’s vote for the resolution that President Bush used when he ordered the attack on Baghdad.


That is probably an exaggeration. Future debates, especially those coming in Iowa and New Hampshire, may provide more openings. It is also the case that the voters in those states are far less firmly attached to their current candidate preferences than polling numbers would suggest.


There is, in fact, time for Obama to rally. It’s just hard for his people to believe it right now.



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