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Silver Lining For Obama

Posted by iBlog on May 13, 2008

Amid the jumble of numbers surrounding the Democratic presidential race, one stands out here at Sen. Barack Obama’s headquarters: Six.

Six months remain before the general election. That’s six long months if your campaign knows it’s likely to lose big in Tuesday’s West Virginia primary, knows the primary battle is likely to continue for several more weeks, yet assumes it will win the nomination and needs to focus on a Republican foe who has a two-month head start in preparing.

[Barack Obama]

In the midst of this awkward situation, the good news for the Obama team is that a lot of the work it has been forced to perform to survive this bruising primary season has had the unintended side effect of laying the groundwork for a general-election campaign. Voter-registration lists, ground operations and the Obama money network — all are bigger and better developed than they would have been had the race quietly wound down in mid-February.

This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of divisiveness and rancor that most Democrats see overhead as the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton fight continues. Sen. Clinton hasn’t gone away, and shows no intention of going away, until she plays out the full calendar of primaries in early June.

Her simple calculation, even as she trails in delegates, votes and states won, is simply to stick it out because, as her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, put it on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, this is politics, and in politics anything can happen.

Meantime, the task for the Obama team, which figures the nomination is eventually coming its way, is to make general-election virtues of what have been primary-season necessities.

This is particularly important because Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has benefited mightily from the luxury of being able to watch the Democrats fight. His aides figure they have made good use of the past two months to build a campaign organization that wasn’t really fully formed even as the nomination came tumbling his way. They have structured a unique, decentralized system of regional campaign managers in hopes of being nimble on the ground.

Sen. McCain also has had time to assemble a badly needed fund-raising plan, and to build support among doubters in his party’s conservative base.

But if the McCain benefits have come from being able to stand down a bit, the Obama benefits have come from having to step up to the stiffest challenge in recent primary-season history.

The first asset Sen. Obama now holds is voter-registration rolls. In state after state, the Obama campaign has found its principal advantage lay in bringing new, young and independent-minded voters into the system, and signing them up to vote. That has swelled the rolls in a broad swath of states with Obama supporters.

Beyond that, Obama aides point out the research behind these registration efforts has left them with keen insight about which voters have yet to be reached. In Georgia, for example, the campaign estimates there are a half-million unregistered black voters — the large majority of them likely Obama supporters, if exit-poll data on black voting patterns are any sign.

Enroll and get enough of them to the polls, and the Obama campaign could create a game-changing dynamic. With precisely that in mind, the campaign launched a new 50-state voter-registration drive over the weekend.

The second advantage the Obama forces have picked up is organization. In a series of states it has had to contest forcefully, the Obama team has at least some organizational structure in place, meaning it doesn’t have to be created from scratch for the general election.

That’s true even in states Sen. Obama lost, such as Pennsylvania, but is equally true in less-publicized places west of the Mississippi, where Sen. Obama did surprisingly well. He was a solid performer in winning caucus states, where organization and turning out supporters to vote are most of the battle.

The hope now is that work done to roll up victories in heartland and Western states has left Sen. Obama better-positioned in an unusual cross section of states: Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota and North Carolina.

The final advantage of the primary fight has been the need to construct a new fund-raising base. The Obama team says its online donor base now numbers 1.5 million people, most of whom haven’t made the maximum legal donation yet.

So while fighting for the Democratic nomination has cost a lot of money, the effort has brought in even more money. Sen. Obama had $51 million on hand at the end of March, which is one reason it is so hard for the Clinton forces to pull off an 11th-hour upset.

Financial success, as it happens, leads to what could be Sen. Obama’s toughest decision, if he wraps up the nomination. Would he accept public financing of the general-election campaign, as all candidates have done before, and as Democrats traditionally have advocated, or drop out of the system to let his fund-raising machine pay for the general election without any limits? It’s a closely held decision, and one aides say Sen. Obama has yet to make

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