Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama, despite two best-selling books, heavy press coverage and a slight fundraising edge, is still lagging behind his 2008 rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards in name recognition.

It has been three years since the self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” introduced himself to Democrats during the party’s 2004 national convention. Now, the Illinois Democrat’s presidential campaign is working to give voters a better idea of what he’s all about.

It’s a tough job, especially since he’s up against the 2004 vice presidential nominee and the wife of a two-term former president, who is recognizable to about 15 percent more of the population.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki views the next seven months as “a marathon not a sprint.”

“What we are focusing on right now is to introduce Barack Obama to voters across the country, and … the more people that get to see him, the more they like him. We are very comfortable with that,” she said, adding that staffers recognize there is still “a lot of work to do.”

A look at the 2008 Democrats’ ad strategies reveals Mr. Obama is alone among the top three candidates in that he is using TV to introduce himself to voters.

Two biographical spots hit the airwaves in Iowa last week, outlining Mr. Obama’s record in the Illinois Senate and his work as a community organizer in Chicago. Both feature excerpts from his 2004 convention speech, which many voters still remember as a pivotal moment before he was elected to the Senate.

The Gallup Poll has been tracking Mr. Obama’s level of name recognition since December 2006. Mr. Obama was at 53 percent familiarity rating at the start, and then he shot up to 72 percent when he announced his candidacy for president in February, but that is where he seems to have peaked. He moved up only three points in a May poll that showed him at 75 percent.

Mrs. Clinton hasn’t run any TV ads yet, enjoying nearly total name recognition nationwide — Gallup showed her at 90 percent and above in three polls — and she has a double-digit lead over her rivals in most preference polls.

Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is one of the most recognized politicians in the country. He will join her on the campaign trail this week.

Four-term Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Mr. Edwards of North Carolina are both on their second presidential runs and hovering around 80 percent.

The name-recognition margins may not seem big, but for every point a candidate picks up, it provides the opportunity of support at the voting booth.

Cornell Belcher, a research consultant with the Obama campaign, said a 75 percent familiarity rating is a “spectacular” number for a freshman senator and that it’s only going to get better.

“It is really hard to get above 70 percent no matter what you do. The point now is to fill in the profile,” Mr. Belcher said. “People know who he is, and they like him, but they want to know more and when you fill in the profile, that is when you will see the horse race move.”

At the recent liberal Take Back America conference, while Mr. Obama’s rivals gave speeches outlining their plans for Iraq and health care, he carefully outlined his experiences to introduce himself to the crowd.

Mr. Edwards enjoys strong name recognition in the first caucus state of Iowa and in the first primary state of New Hampshire. He was also born and raised in the second primary state, South Carolina, which he won in 2004, and the only state where Mr. Obama has a slight lead in the polls.

The former senator, now known as much for his $400 haircuts as for his fight against poverty, focused his first TV ads in Iowa on pushing Congress to end the Iraq war. He released an ad last week in New Hampshire that shows him giving a speech, and includes an image of his wife greeting voters. His campaign strategists said it wasn’t necessary to give his life story because he is already well-known, and instead want to tell voters his policy ideas.

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