- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s team once worried that the presidential hopeful was widely unknown, but now he faces a challenge in making sure voters know the right things about the presumptive Democratic nominee.

One year ago, Mr. Obama’s camp cheered polls showing he had gone from 53 percent name recognition to 75 percent. Now that he has defeated one of the best-known Democrats in the country, nearly all U.S. voters recognize Mr. Obama’s name.

The problem is, many don’t know much about his background or where he stands on the issues, and Republicans and groups working for his defeat in November are working to define him on their terms.

Mr. Obama on Friday told reporters he is “still relatively new on the national scene” compared with presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do everywhere,” he said. “John McCain’s a fine man and somebody who has been in the public eye for a long time. … When your name is Barack Obama, you’re like Avis; you’ve got to work, you know, twice as hard.”

That’s one reason Mr. Obama has rolled out an 18-state biographical ad campaign portraying him as having fierce love for his country and detailing his legislative record of cutting taxes “for working families” and passing laws “moving people from welfare to work.”

The senator from Illinois often talks about bipartisanship, and notes on his Web site that his first bill signed into law was co-sponsored with Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to create a searchable Internet database tracking federal grants and contracts.

Still, Mr. Obama is “very unknown” while Mr. McCain remains “not all that well known,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen.

“This is the first election in a very long time that what the candidates do between now and November will determine who wins,” he said.

He said the positions of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain remain relatively undefined for voters, who on Nov. 4 face the first election since 1952 without an incumbent president or sitting vice president on either ticket.

Several polls show that at least half of voters are unfamiliar with where either candidate stands on the issues.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said he is not surprised that there is not a “real hard and fast recognition of everything each one of these guys stand for” or recognition much beyond their names.

“Obviously that’s our challenge in the next few months is to fill that in in a way that is greater and more compelling than what the Republicans will do or what [independent pro-Republican groups] will try to do,” he said Thursday at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Indeed, Republicans are labeling Mr. Obama as they have other Democrats for years, saying he would govern as a “tax-and-spend liberal,” but also are exploiting his errors to cast doubt in the minds of Americans.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, listed his party’s talking points about Mr. Obama’s liabilities: his controversial former pastor, his wife’s comments about pride in America and the candidate’s remarks that some people are “bitter” and “cling” to guns, religion or nativism.

“There are so many unanswered questions about who Barack Obama is,” Mr. Bolling told The Washington Times. “A lot of pieces of the puzzle that just don’t fit - with Jeremiah Wright and that church in Chicago [and] comments his wife has made. People are just a little bit uncertain about who this guy really is.”

The Republican labeled Mr. Obama “untried and unproven” and called him the “least qualified and most inexperienced candidate to ever seek the presidency.”

Mr. Gibbs said the senator may soon embark on a background or biography tour to “introduce him aggressively throughout the country.”

In July, Obama aides said their primary focus was introducing their boss to voters because “the more people that get to see him, the more they like him.” The strategy proved smart in the Democratic contests: The more time Mr. Obama spent in a state, the better he tended to perform.

Now, Mr. Obama’s allies are working feverishly to spread his message, calling him the candidate of true change and saying Mr. McCain offers nothing more than a third term for a vilified President Bush.

Obama volunteers across the country on Saturday are organizing more than 1,000 Unite for Change “meetings” to “bring together people who supported all of the Democratic candidates, as well as independents and even some Republicans,” around a common cause.

Voters seeking information on the Obama Web site can find the basics: He grew up in Hawaii, was raised by a single mother and his grandparents. He met his Kenyan father just once. After college, he was a community organizer in Chicago, then at Harvard Law School, he became the first black president of its prestigious law review.

Mr. Obama was a civil rights lawyer in Chicago, taught constitutional law and then served in the state Senate for eight years. He faced a relatively easy election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, boosted by his heralded speech at the Democratic National Convention.

National Journal uses his 2007 Senate votes to rank him as the most liberal member of the chamber, a label that delights Republicans. Mr. Obama dismisses the ranking as flawed because his support for creating an independent ethics office to police Congress is one of the votes the survey defined as liberal.

Before Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, 47 percent of voters found him to be liberal, Mr. Rasmussen said. That number has risen to 69 percent in the six months since.

“Perceptions of him are changing pretty rapidly,” he said.

By comparison, the numbers for 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry moved by single digits as voters learned more about him after the primaries.

In another front to the image war, Mr. Obama has created a Web site designed to “fight the smears” sent via e-mail.

One such e-mail titled “John McCain’s sons” correctly details that Mr. McCain’s young son was deployed to Iraq. But the widely circulated e-mail includes a blatant misquote of Mr. Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” that plays on the false rumors that he is a Muslim.

“I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction,” the e-mail quotes Mr. Obama, a Christian, as having written, going on to blare in all capital letters “He did not say stand with Americans!”

Mr. Obama’s book did, in fact, say he would stand with Americans. In a long passage, he described his conversations assuring Arab- and Pakistani-Americans “that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.”

The Obama Web site rebuts the most widely spread rumors with photo or video evidence. His campaign also has worked harder to showcase his patriotism and define his mixed heritage.

His new ads feature photos of Mr. Obama with his white mother and grandparents, who says they taught him “values straight from the Kansas heartland” included a “love of country.”

“America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life’s been blessed by both,” he says.

He closes the ad with a subtle rebuttal against unfounded e-mail rumors questioning his patriotism: “I approved this message because I’ll never forget those values, and if I have the honor of taking the oath of office as president, it will be with a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.”

Mr. Obama said his intention with the ads was to remind voters “that I come to politics because of my own story, somebody who wasn’t born into wealth or privilege, that was given extraordinary opportunities, probably because of a family that cared for me and gave me a great education, but partly because of a country that allows you to make it if you try.”

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