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Democrats aim to erase doubt

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2008


Democrats kick off their carefully choreographed national nominating convention Monday with one goal in mind - to convince a doubting electorate that Sen. Barack Obama is prepared to lead the country as president and commander in chief.

With most election surveys showing the freshman senator's support has fallen in head-to-head matchups with Sen. John McCain, Democrats said the nationally televised four-day gathering in Denver needs to show Americans that their party is united behind Mr. Obama and that he is ready to deal with the difficult economic and national security challenges facing the country.

For most of August, the McCain campaign has been attacking Mr. Obama's readiness to lead on defense and foreign-policy matters, and the Democrat's poll numbers have suffered as a result. A Pew Research Center poll this month found that voters trusted Mr. McCain more to handle a foreign-policy crisis by a 15-point margin.

On the economy, which Democrats have made their No. 1 campaign target and have increasingly painted the senator from Arizona as an out-of-touch rich man who doesn't know how many homes he owns, a Zogby poll now finds "more voters trust McCain to deal effectively with economic issues" than Mr. Obama. "He clearly has work to do," pollster John Zogby said.

Both issues will have to be addressed convincingly by Democrats at the convention and by Mr. Obama in his nomination acceptance speech Thursday night and possibly in more detail than he has done so far.

"It's not enough to be glib. It's no longer about charisma and a new face. What Americans want is some specificity about what Barack is going to do about the economy and how to get people working again," said veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

"They are making the wrong argument. Americans don't care about how many houses you own. That's idiotic. It doesn't work," Mr. Sheinkopf said about Mr. Obama's recent attack on the number of homes owned by Mr. McCain and his heiress wife, Cindy.

But most Democrats interviewed over the weekend maintained that despite nearly two years of nonstop campaigning, many voters still do not know that much about the Illinois Democrat who is vying to become the first black U.S. president.

"This convention provides an opportunity for a lot of Americans who are just tuning in to the political process. It will give them a better idea of who Barack Obama is and what he will try to do," said Florida delegate Allan Katz, a Tallahassee city commissioner and a member of the Democratic National Committee's executive committee.

"We've had a pretty sustained attack on Barack Obama by the Republicans, and I think when you attack someone who is less well-known, that, initially, has a tendency to have a short-term impact," Mr. Katz said.

But Mr. Katz and the Obama campaign think that "as the campaign progresses, people in this country are going to get more and more comfortable with the idea of Obama as president."

That, too, will be one of the convention's strategic goals.

The Obama campaign has lined up a bevy of governors, congressional and military leaders, other elected officials and party activists, and even evangelical leaders, to sing his praises and promote his candidacy, with former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton leading a parade of party luminaries to the convention podium Tuesday and Wednesday night to give him their stamp of approval.

But even as Democrats gather to officially name their nominee, party unity remains a problematic and still-distant goal for the Obama campaign.

"It's absolutely a work in progress," said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman, who backed Mrs. Clinton for the nomination and has had several conversations with her in the run-up to the convention.