Obama wins elites but slips in the polls Party leaders, superdelegates line up
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Democratic establishment is steadily moving toward ensuring Sen. Barack Obama’s nomination for president even as more of the party’s voters view him as a damaged candidate.
Mr. Obama is fewer than 300 delegates from the nomination, and inches closer with each day and each superdelegate endorsement, but he is losing ground in national polls and in the final contest states in the wake of negative campaigning, big-state losses and several dust-ups involving his former pastor.
Poll after poll shows that the Democratic front-runner’s image has been sullied and that many De- mocrats who back his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, say they won’t back Mr. Obama if he is the party choice.
But party leaders such as former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew are flocking to Mr. Obama’s side, urging others to do the same and close the delegate gap so Democrats can unify in time for the fall.
“I have been inspired,” Mr. Andrew said in a May 1 note to the superdelegates — elected officials and party activists whose endorsements ultimately will decide the nominee.
Mr. Andrew, who was named to the DNC post in 1999 under President Clinton, said Mr. Obama’s handling of the Rev. Jeremiah A.
Wright Jr.’s anti-American sermons helped seal the deal to get him to switch sides from Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama. He called on voters in his home state of Indiana and on superdelegates to “heal the rift in our party and unite behind” Mr. Obama.
“We risk letting this moment slip through our fingers. We risk ceding the field to the Republicans and allowing the morally bankrupt Bush agenda to continue unabated if we do not unite behind a single candidate,” he said.
“Should this race continue after Indiana and North Carolina, it will inevitably become more negative,” he said, also blasting Mrs. Clinton and her husband for using “old” campaign tactics.
Mrs. Clinton — trailing the Illinois senator in delegates but buoyed by a Pennsylvania win April 22 — is now beating presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain in more polls and is gaining on Mr. Obama in the next contests.
Mr. Obama’s once-solid edge in North Carolina has dropped to single digits, and the two candidates are crisscrossing Indiana to fight for every vote in what’s expected to be a close contest. Both states vote May 6.
The Clinton campaign said she is emerging as the better choice despite his lead in states won because Mr. Obama is losing support among independents.
“A spate of new public polls out this week confirms what we have been arguing for some time: Hillary Clinton is the strongest candidate to beat John McCain in November,” Clinton adviser Harold Ickes wrote in a campaign memo May 1.
Among the polls that have cheered Team Clinton is the Ras- mussen daily tracking poll showing Mrs. Clinton beating Mr. Obama nationally 46 percent to 44 percent, a swing of 10 points since Mr. Wright started talking to the press.
The Clinton campaign also cited new Qunnipiac polls showing that Mrs. Clinton would beat Mr. McCain in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, while Mr. Obama would narrowly lose in Florida and Ohio.
Mr. Ickes cited a new CBS/New York Times poll showing the gap between Mr. Obama’s favorable and unfavorable ratings had worsened in the past month. At the start of April, Mr. Obama was viewed favorably by 62 percent and unfavorably by 14 percent — a 48-point advantage. The latest poll showed just a 37-point gap between the two ratings — 57 percent and 20 percent.
The Fox and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls show a similar change in his favorability ratings.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the rival campaign was cherry-picking polls and ignoring several that show Mr. Obama up.
“At best, the polling is inconclusive, but in reality, our position of strength remains.”
Clinton strategist Geoff Garin cited “real movement” in polls and “a real change in the dynamic here” over the past two weeks.
Mr. Obama is “losing stock” with independent voters, and Mrs. Clinton is seen as the candidate “consistently strongest” against Mr. McCain, Mr. Garin said.
Voters in this cycle have seen Mrs. Clinton “with her back up against the wall on the verge of elimination,” said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. “They have seen her tested under fire.”
Mr. Obama has held a lead among North Carolina Democrats since he won the Iowa caucus in early January and is favored there in part because of the high population of black voters. But in recent weeks, while Mrs. Clinton and her husband have campaigned in the state, his lead has dropped. In April, his lead in polls reached a high of 25 and is now at an average of seven points, according to a RealClearPolitics tally.
In Indiana, Mrs. Clinton has an average lead of 4.8 percentage points and has been gaining on Mr. Obama in recent polls.
The past few weeks have been a series of highs and lows, a roller coaster that Mr. Obama says helps keep him grounded. But that is hard to do when Mr. Wright’s fiery sermons follow him on the campaign trail.
Former Obama supporter Larry Emmons of Lafayette, Ind., said he changed his mind last week after observing Mr. Wright’s actions. Mr. Obama’s “being in that church for 20 years has really upset me and my friends. He’s been indoctrinated into probably some bad stuff,” he said.
Joe Cass, a laid-off truck driver from South Bend, Ind., said Mr. Obama is getting “shot down” by Mr. Wright, who gave anti-American sermons and now denounces Mr. Obama as just a politician.
“This stuff with his preacher messed him up,” the Democrat said.
“He needs to get out and shake hands to repair the damage [. . .] if he wants the white vote back he’s got to get out there and mingle,” said Mr. Cass, who plans to vote for Mrs. Clinton on May 6 but said he might be persuaded to do otherwise if Mr. Obama were to greet everyday voters instead of holding campaign-planned events.
Mrs. Clinton, who does just as many campaign rallies and planned forums, also routinely says being president is about more than “just speeches.”
Mr. Obama seems aware of such criticism.
“What I want to do is spend more time listening than talking,” he said when opening up a townhall forum with about 100 voters in a dairy beef building at the fairgrounds here May 1. He said it is great to get big crowds — 12,000 in Bloomington on April 30 — but he wants to do more small events.
“You don’t really learn much when you’re listening to yourself talk, but you do learn about when you’re listening to the American people,” he said.
On the stump on May 1, Mr. Obama reached out to rural voters and elderly voters at an assisted living facility. He stressed his grandparents’ “very modest” working-class roots and his mother’s battle with cancer and difficulties with health insurance.
His grandmother worked on the bomber assembly line while his grandfather fought in World War II and later benefited from the GI Bill.
“If we invest in our people, then everybody prospers,” he said, adding his desire to be president “all traces back to the values that my grandparents passed on to me.”
Mr. Obama also promised if elected he would reach out to Republicans to get things done. He said President Bush failed to talk about working together even though he lost the popular vote in 2000.
“Even though he just barely got in there, [his attitude] was ‘my way or the highway,’ ” Mr. Obama charged.
‘Inspired’: A former national party chairman has urged Democrats to back Sen. Barack Obama.