- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has a long to-do list, and less time to check off tasks than Democrats that have come before him.

Just a few items he’ll need to take care of, and soon: Choose someone to join him on the ticket, win over the lower-income voters who backed his rival and comfort women devastated their candidate didn’t make the cut.

The Illinois senator Saturday took the first major step toward healing any rifts remaining in the Democratic Party as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped aside and endorsed him.

He encouraged his backers to send her a note of thanks through his Web site - a move that could lead to asking them to help retire her more than $30 million campaign debt. He also shared video of his Tuesday speech when he lavished praise on his rival as shattering barriers and making him a better nominee.

Mr. Obama said he will ask loyal Clinton voters to join him and campaign vigorously in states he lost such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“They did very well in a number of states where we need help,” he said. “We’re going to try, with all humility, to seek their support, and figure out how we can all work together to win in November.”

But some are exploiting Mrs. Clinton’s concession, with the Republican National Committee noting in a statement, “Voters across America will reject Barack Obama on Election Day, just as half of his party already has.”

It’s been five months since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucus - and there are less than five months until the general election Nov. 4. The halfway point is daunting, considering that in addition to his top to-dos, Mr. Obama also has to get back out on the campaign trail and raise money.

He has some financial and organizational advantages over his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, but it will be no easy task to win the general election.

“I’m not underestimating the challenge we have ahead of us,” Mr. Obama said. “John McCain is a strong candidate and the Republican Party is accustomed to winning presidential elections. They’re not going to give up without a fight. I’m going to have to bring my A-game and I’m going to need the best teammates possible to win.”

Democrats note that for all the bruised feelings and sometimes sharp jabs in debates and television ads, Mr. Obama has not yet realized the full force of attacks that are sure to come, especially since his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004 was against a weak Republican opponent.

“He’s been given a free ride to this point and the free ride is over,” Democratic strategist James Boyce said. “The entire force of the Republican machine is going to be focused on him. They will just start to tear him apart top to bottom.”

Mr. Obama often counters this argument by noting he survived against the tough Clinton machine, but Mr. Boyce and others have said the few negative spots she ran against him - saying he was afraid to debate her and painting him as weak on national security - pale in comparison to what is to come.

Republicans have had months to collect ammunition, and Mr. Obama’s own comments about some rural people feeling “bitter” and wanting to “cling” to religion and guns will be lines of attack in the fall.

“The GOP machine that took John Kerry with his three Purple Hearts and turned him into a coward now has a real candidate,” said Mr. Boyce, who was a Kerry adviser during the 2004 election. “George Bush is an idiot and he got elected twice against superior candidates.”

The McCain and Obama campaigns have said they want to run an issue-based, substantive race that avoids the “distractions” and petty politics they both deride on the stump. But the Republican and Democratic establishments have given no indications they will play nice.

The Obama campaign has long noted that time is his friend and the more time he spends in a state, the better he performs. He spent nearly a year organizing and campaigning in Iowa, which helped him slowly rise from little-known senator to big winner Jan. 3.

Even the prolonged primary - made up of 54 contests over five months, the Democrat likes to point out - worked out to his benefit. In addition to being a stronger candidate, he established roots and voter-registration efforts across the nation.

While Mr. Obama took the day off in Chicago on Friday, supporters in Florida held no fewer than 12 events across the Sunshine State - including a voter registration drive in Jacksonville, an informational table at the gay pride event in Orlando and a virtual Robert F. Kennedy remembrance urging donations to Mr. Obama in the slain Democrat’s honor on the anniversary of his death.

Mr. Boyce said that organization will be a huge boost in the fall.

Because Mr. Kerry of Massachusetts had locked up his party nod by mid-February, he didn’t have a network in place in key states, including Florida, Washington and Ohio - the state that cost him the presidency.

“Obama already has an inherent network in every state,” Mr. Boyce said. “We had to create operations in those states.”

Mr. Obama has revealed few details about his upcoming campaign schedule, though he plans a two-week economic tour through swing states such as Missouri starting Monday.

His last few weeks on the trail may indicate how he will spend the summer.

The days usually begin with town-hall forums that allow for about 10 questions from about 2,000 voters in a school gym or similar building. He’ll make unannounced local stops in much smaller venues - a shift change at a factory or a meet-and-great in a small veterans hall.

During those stops, Mr. Obama usually will shake hands, pose for pictures, sample the food, and ask people questions such as “How is business?” In the evenings, he holds larger rallies in arenas that help showcase his supporters’ enthusiasm.

He also has stepped up his fundraising - holding two events in New York last week and attending a fundraiser in St. Louis on Monday. But much of the Obama fundraising juggernaut has been built online, and the campaign continues to push for small donors to build what it calls a “movement” with now more than 1.5 million people.

“John McCain and his allies are not missing a beat in their campaign to continue the Bush agenda,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told supporters in a fundraising e-mail. “John McCain had a three-month head start to build his party and raise money. But we can’t afford to let him have the advantage.”

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