Last week I did a few posts about some reservations I had with Obama's campaign strategy thus far (see here and here). I thought a bit more about it over the weekend, particularly after reading this solid Adam Nagourney/Jeff Zeleny piece in yesterday's Times, and think I've come up with something a little more fleshed out about both Obama and the overall state of the race.
First, as Nagourney and Zeleny document, the nomination increasingly looks like Hillary's to lose. That pronouncement of course comes with all the usual caveats--unreliability of early poll numbers, etc.--but, at this point, it would be crazy not to consider her the very strong favorite to win the nomination.
Now, if you're a rival campaign, and you work backward from that assumption, your next question has to be: What's the most likely way for Hillary to stumble between now and, say, March, when the nomination is sewn up? For my money, the most likely stumble comes at some point in the last three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, when Democratic primary voters there get a bit of buyer's remorse. Maybe they worry about Hillary's high negatives, or that she's a woman (the likes of which, after all, has never been tested in a general election), or that she carries too much baggage from the '90s, or that her election would extend a 20-year period in which only two families have controlled the White House, etc. Whatever the specific concern, I think the bottom line is that Iowa voters may worry that she's too risky to nominate (particularly in a year that should be a walk-over for Democrats), that she may not be as electable as they'd like.
If that's the case, then I think it has huge implications for both Obama and Edwards--namely, it suggests both men have been running the wrong campaign. In a nutshell, I think Edwards is the most obvious beneficiary of any buyer's remorse Hillary might provoke. Edwards is a white guy from North Carolina with a thick Southern accent and a moderate record in the Senate. Barack Obama is a black guy from Illinois with an exotic name and only three years in federal office. If you're an Iowa Democrat who wakes up in a cold sweat in January worried about nominating someone (Clinton) who may be a tough sell in Middle America, the person you probably run to is Edwards, not Obama. (For the record, I think there are all sorts of reasons to be skeptical of this snap judgment about who plays better in Middle America; I just think it's one the typical caucus-goer is likely to make.)
For Edwards, the implication is that you basically want to run the same campaign you did in 2004. You want to be upbeat, moderate, reassuring, inspiring, empathetic, but not scary or angry in any way. Maybe your message has a more populist tint to it than last time. And you no doubt still change course on the war. But, all in all, your best bet is to be the electable guy people turn to in their moment of angst. That's why I'm not so sure it makes sense for Edwards to move in an increasingly strident direction as the campaign unfolds. (Take, for example, the Edwards attack last week on Hillary's $1,000-a-plate fundraiser in Washington, something Nagourney and Zeleny say we'll be seeing more and more of.)
On the one hand, I sympathize with the impulse to mix things up rather than let Hillary run away with the nomination. On the other hand, I think this strategy sells Edwards a little short. It presumes that he's a longer shot than he may actually be. (Though, to be sure, he's still a pretty long shot, since, even if he wins Iowa, he doesn't have the money Obama and Clinton have to compete nationally, which will be key on the mega-primary day of February 5.)
For Obama, meanwhile, the opposite logic applies: The implication is that you can't run an electability campaign (which, as I noted last week, he appears to be doing) and count on a late break toward you in Iowa a la Kerry or Edwards in 2004. Instead, I think you've got to make your case pretty agressively in the next month or two--kind of the way Edwards has been trying to so far. You need to be more explicit (though by no means vicious) about Hillary's flaws as a candidate--obviously her vote on the war is at the top of the list--and more deliberate in displaying your strengths (e.g., your gift for laying out liberal values in ways that sound so commonsensical you wonder how anyone could think otherwise). Granted, there's always a risk in taking on a rival forcefully in a multi-candidate field. But I don't think Obama has much of a choice at this point: The later it gets, the more Edwards, and not Obama, becomes the more plausible alternative to Hillary. If the Edwards people think their man is a longer shot than he actually is, then the Obama people seem to think their man is a better bet than he is.
P.S. Marc Ambinder posts an interesting memo from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe laying out the campaign's path to the nomination, with a particular emphasis on organization in Iowa. I can't judge the campaign's organization relative to other campaigns at this point (or even relative to what Plouffe is telling us is the case), but it does sound impressive and sophisticated in ways that, as Marc points out, Howard Dean's organization was not.
P.P.S. As Marc also noted last week (and Plouffe highlights in his memo), Obama did generate a lot of enthusiasm in a recent appearance before the SEIU, the kind of enthusiasm he wasn't generating among rank-and-file Democrats earlier in the year. So maybe he is starting to showcase his strengths more...