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How Obama Became The Man To Beat

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

If the polls are to be believed, Barack Obama, a man with just three years of Senate experience and virtually no national name recognition before the 2004 Democratic convention, is about to win the New Hampshire primary. The win would come less than a week after his victory in the Iowa caucuses and make him the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile - named most admired woman in the world, the spouse of a former president, the person the media had long talked about as the inevitable Democratic nominee - could be on the verge of a demoralizing defeat, one that wouldn't be easy for her campaign to recover from. As her need to fight back tears in New Hampshire yesterday illustrated, the pressure of campaigning and expectations seem to be taking a toll on her.

So what happened? How did Obama's campaign outmaneuver a Clinton team that many observers thought unstoppable?


Obama cast himself as the "change" candidate early in the campaign, and his competitors' attempts to co-opt that message serve as a testament to its effectiveness. Clinton, realizing that an argument built on experience and competence had not won voters over, recast herself as the candidate whose experience could best bring change about. John Edwards, pushing populist rhetoric further than his rivals, cast himself as the only man willing to go far enough to affect real change. Even Mitt Romney, a Republican, has made the notion that he is a change candidate one of the central arguments of his campaign.

The candidates have good reason to cast themselves as change agents: Polls show that the majority of Americans - and the vast majority of Democrats - are now calling for it. More than half of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa said the capacity for change was the most important factor in their assessment of a candidate. But change was not a Clinton theme early in her campaign, which left the door open for Obama to claim it. He stressed that he opposed the war in Iraq, which Clinton voted for, to hammer home his rejection of Bush administration politics. And while Clinton has repeatedly stressed her ability to foster change in recent weeks - she has been saying "if you want to know what kind of changes I will make, look at the changes I have already made" - one Democratic consultant calls the attempt "too little, too late, and too obvious."


The Clinton campaign flirted with the notion of not competing in Iowa, a suggestion that doesn't look so bad in retrospect. The former first lady finished third in the caucuses, a result that came in part because the Obama campaign, unlike the Clinton campaign, aggressively targeted new voters - and they responded. "The astounding thing that really made the difference is the massive increase in turnout," says Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University. More than 239,000 Democrats caucused on Jan. 3rd, nearly double the number who did so in 2004. Fifty-seven percent of voters under 30 - a group that caucused in unprecedented numbers - broke for Obama.

The Clinton campaign has tried to downplay the importance of Obama's victory in Iowa. "The worst thing would be to over count Iowa and its importance," Chief Clinton Strategist Mark Penn told reporters after the caucuses. He added, "Iowa doesn't have a record of picking presidents." But the Clinton campaign seems to have underestimated how damaging a relatively poor finish in Iowa could be, particularly considering the compressed primary schedule and the media's obsessive focus on the caucuses. Iowa isn't always a bellwether - George H.W. Bush came in third there in 1988, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, and went on to win the Republican nomination - but it can transform a campaign and anoint a new frontrunner. That's exactly what happened in 2004, when John Kerry's Iowa win propelled him to the Democratic nomination ahead of Howard Dean.

In many ways Obama did not run a traditional campaign targeted at solidifying the base of the party, instead opting to stress inclusiveness and speak of reaching out. But he ran a very traditional campaign in one sense: He put together a massive organization and raising over $100 million during 2007. Most candidates with insurgent-like energy shun the party establishment, but Obama has welcomed such support whenever offered, winning the endorsements of politicians and celebrities alike.

Clinton Fatigue:

After more than a decade in which the Clinton and Bush families have been at the forefront of politics, there was an opening for a candidate who could transform anti-Clinton (and, more broadly, anti-status quo) sentiment into support. "The Clintons and the Bushes represent the last generation for many people," says David King, a public policy lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Obama has been able to claim the anti-Clinton mantle in part by resisting overtly negative attacks on his rivals, attacks that might have caused voters to see him as nothing more than the latest divisive politician to emerge onto the national scene. Most candidates, King says, will talk about a new, post-partisan era, but "the next talking point will be a little zinger to somebody else. Obama hasn't been like that. He's been consistently positive."

And Clinton's early message of competence may only have exacerbated Clinton fatigue in voters. "When she talked about the grounds for her claims of competence it kept tying her back to the 90s," says Goldford. "And it raised questions in people's minds - are we really talking about Bill's third term?"

Background and Style:

People have long raised questions about whether Americans could elect a black president, but thus far Obama's race seems to have benefited him. "His being black is an advantage in Democratic primaries because racial tolerance is an important component of being a liberal Democrat," says Democratic media strategist Dan Payne. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman argues that Obama's race "helps to make his cause a movement."

"It helps people to believe they're involved in a historically transformative experience," Mellman says.

Obama's compelling life story, which he has articulated both on the stump and in books, seems to evoke a strong emotional response in many voters. Like President George W. Bush, he talks eloquently about his struggles early in life. (The similarities don't end there: When Mr. Bush was a candidate, he cast himself as the man who would unify the country, much like Obama does today.)

And Obama's appealing personal style, combined with his generally positive rhetoric, has been enough for many.

"We don't know much about him," says Payne. "He's almost like a spirit. People like the feeling they get when they're in his presence. But they couldn't tell you three things that he's done or stands for. We're at that weird stage where candidates get so magnetic that it almost doesn't matter what they say."

That doesn't last forever, of course, and Obama could slip up anytime, perhaps making the kind of verbal gaffe that can sink a nominee. But it's been a remarkable run so far, with Obama, not Clinton, emerging as the candidate most adept at avoiding the potential pitfalls of the presidential campaign.

"So far," says King, "Barack Obama has done just about everything right."
By Brian Montopoli

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