Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, is rapidly building a presidential campaign organization using students, the Internet, grass-roots organizers and the support from up-and-coming young politicians to do battle against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s cadre of established campaign operatives and long-time party bigwigs.
Generating new Democrats and tapping newly elected leaders not tied to former President Bill Clinton is the best way for Mr. Obama to run competitively against Mrs. Clinton in the early going, say Mr. Obama’s backers, though they say at some point his successes will earn him the broader support he will need to face the front-runner.
“He is building a strong organization in Iowa and New Hampshire, and as his momentum builds in those states, you will see more elected officials come along,” said Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat and one of the young politicians who has endorsed Mr. Obama, as have freshman Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat.
Mr. Davis predicted that by summer’s end Mr. Obama, will be tied in national polls with Mrs. Clinton — the New York Democrat and former first lady who is currently leading polls among Democratic presidential contenders — and tied or ahead of her in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Mr. Davis said that will begin to eat away at Mrs. Clinton’s biggest advantage — the elected lawmakers and union officials who make up the so-called “super delegates” who wield important clout in the Democrats’ nomination process.
“A lot of super delegates want to be with the winner,” said Mr. Davis, predicting that Mr. Obama’s poll numbers would improve “in direct proportion as people get to know who he is. I mean his numbers move as soon as people get up to hear him speak and speak to him.”
Mr. Obama has already won the support of some establishment Democrats, including former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and garnered the backing of two key figures in the key early caucus state of Iowa, Attorney General Tom Miller and State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald.
His next test will be to prove he can raise the money necessary to go up against Mrs. Clinton when first-quarter numbers are submitted this month.
“If he reaches the $10 million threshold, that shows people that he is a serious candidate, and I think he will be at $10 million plus,” said political strategist Morris Reid, a former Clinton administration adviser and managing director of Westin Rinehart, a Washington-based communications firm.
Mr. Obama’s campaign said he will surpass that.
“Published reports have us at $8-10 million, but we feel good about it being more,” an Obama campaign official said. The campaign has not yet released the official tally of their fundraising, which must be completed by April 15.
Several Democratic strategists said Mr. Obama should be heartened by some of the crowds in his first three weeks on the campaign trail: 20,000 in Austin, Texas; 8,000 in Oklahoma; and 5,000 in Iowa.
But Mr. Reid said Mr. Obama cannot become the Howard Dean of 2008, able to mobilize and generate excitement from young Americans but unable to translate them into votes, saying he needs to be more like John F. Kennedy in 1960, who was able to create a new base of young voters that went on to change American politics.
Mr. Obama has characterized his campaign as the “Joshua generation” — the generation of Americans who grew up after the 1960s civil rights movement and benefit from the work of the “Moses generation” of leaders who participated in it.
He said the movement must now shift to economics and political empowerment, an ideology that is robust among young American minorities. Those younger supporters have become the backbone of Mr. Obama’s political organization.
“Whenever people ask me ‘Why do you think Barack has a better chance than Hillary,’ I tell them the basic point is Democrats have to find a way to bring people in to the process who have not been a part of it,” Mr. Davis said. “If we bring everybody into the political process, who is eligible to vote and shares Democratic values, we win every election in this country, and Barack Obama has the best chance of bringing those voters into the process in 2008.”
The youth movement manifested itself even before Mr. Obama officially announced his campaign with young supporters begging him to join the race.
Ben Stanfield, 26, a computer technician, started the DraftObama.org Web blog in October. That site grew rapidly, incorporating other Web sites such as Independents for Obama (https://independents.forobama.org), started by Seth Tobey, 22, a law student at the University of Iowa.
There is also Students for Barack Obama (www.studentsforbarackobama.com), a collection of college undergraduates who met on the Facebook.com group named “Barack Obama for President in 2008,” and boasted 31,000 members in early January.
“We have 66,787 members right now, and we’re following the tone from Senator Obama to grow the grass-roots movement ourselves,” said Famid Sinha, 22, a political science student at the University of Pennsylvania who is on the students’ group leadership team. He said they have chapters at more than 160 schools.
Mr. Sinha said the youth movement underscores Mr. Obama’s entire campaign, focused on energizing young Americans “disillusioned” with politics, corruption and negative campaigns.
“What we think is that he more than the other candidates really cares about us and our views and he wants to empower us in the campaign,” Mr. Sinha said.