Now that he’s known, Obama positions his image

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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.

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About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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