Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton shuffled slogans, staff and tactics in the wake of her primary losses. But Obama and his advisers, after a third major primary defeat in two months, say they are sticking with the game plan that brought him this far.
"The way we are going to close the deal is by winning,” Obama told reporters in New Albany, Ind., on Wednesday, one day after losing Pennsylvania to Clinton by 9 percentage points. “And right now, we are winning."
Obama’s aides said, on and off the record, that Obama would keep doing what he’s been doing: campaigning with the aim of running up big margins on friendly turf and limiting his losses where Clinton is strong.
And they said to expect no tweaks to his campaign style of speeches full of hope and attacks on Washington’s status quo, expensive field and television campaigns, and direct mail attacks on Clinton’s trustworthiness and policies. They also stressed the importance of the largest remaining state, North Carolina, as a test of both candidates.
His aides also directly dismissed concerns that his relative weakness among working-class white voters — a constant since at least February — should cause superdelegates to doubt his viability in November.
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“The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections, going back even to the Clinton years. This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes,” his chief strategist, David Axelrod, told National Public Radio.
“The vast majority of these Democrats are going to come home,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, saying the question is who would pull younger, independent-leaning Republicans away from Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The spin drew a sharp rejoinder from former President Bill Clinton, whose narrow pluralities among working-class white voters were key to his victories, according to leading Democratic analysts.
“Today her opponent's campaign strategist said, 'Well, we don't really need these working class people to win. Half the time they vote for Republicans anyways,'" the former president said while speaking from a flatbed truck on a baseball field in Hillsborough, N.C. "I will tell you something — America needs you to win, and therefore Hillary wants your support.”
Obama’s decision not to engage the argument over white working-class voters — or to present a strategy for improvement — indicates they don’t believe undecided superdelegates are buying Clinton’s arguments.
And there is no evidence that they are. Wednesday, the candidates announced the endorsements of three superdelegates with working-class white constituents: Obama won the support of Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and a Democratic national committeewoman from Nebraska while Clinton won the support of Tennessee Rep. John Tanner.
Clinton’s campaign has sought to focus attention on the contest in Indiana, considered favorable demographic terrain for her despite a proximity to Obama’s hometown of Chicago and his strong organization. There, too, Obama’s backers hope he’ll run strong.
“The Obama camp was the only one that focused on new registration,” Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel told Politico. “They brought in the lion’s share, if not all” of about 3,600 new registrations in his county.
But Plouffe said North Carolina would be a key test of the candidates, an argument that sets Obama up to declare an overall victory on May 6 — when he is likely to win more delegates an more votes on the day — and downplay Indiana as a definitive contest.
“North Carolina is a big battleground state with 15 electoral votes,” Plouffe said. “By [the Clinton campaign’s] own definition, it would appear they need to win North Carolina.”
Plouffe also sought to downplay Obama’s weakness in the industrial Midwest by suggesting that he can put an unorthodox set of states into play against McCain — Virginia, Iowa, Missouri and Georgia —though it may not give comfort to Democrats who think the race will be fought in the traditional battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.
For Obama, a change of strategy might prove a dangerous distraction and a sign of weakness when he’s focused on projecting a winner’s strength. What’s more, some Democrats noted, Obama hasn’t lost support within demographic groups over the course of the primary and has his highest-ever standing against Clinton in national polls.
“His positive message has proved durable and powerful,” said Bob Shrum, the top adviser to John Kerry in 2004.