So far, Obama's agenda a no-show

Party divisions have gotten in the way of the message.

August 27, 2008|Doyle McManus and Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writers

DENVER — This week's Democratic convention sought to relaunch Barack Obama's presidential campaign by doing three things: Healing the party's internal rift, showing voters who Obama is, and spelling out more clearly what he would do as president, especially on the economy. But at the halfway point, the convention still seemed, at best, to have accomplished Step 1.

Hillary Rodham Clinton made a major effort in her Tuesday night speech to bring her supporters fully into the Obama camp, insisting that "the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose." Obama's wife, Michelle, aided by her telegenic daughters, Malia and Sasha, made a modest start Monday at showing the nominee's side as a family man.

But as for how Obama would tackle the voters' top concern, the nation's slumping economy, the convention has barely made a mark. And that has even some Obama backers fretting.

"We'd rather be talking about his economic program, sure," said an Obama advisor who spoke on condition of anonymity because the campaign has sought to portray an air of serene confidence. "We'll get there," he added grimly.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a former Clinton backer who now supports Obama, said the party was now on its way to unity.

"We are 99% united," he said on the convention floor just before Clinton's speech. "If you ask those [former Clinton] voters who they want to be for -- Barack Obama or John McCain? -- they would say Barack Obama overwhelmingly."

But Rendell acknowledged that he remained antsy about the Obama campaign's difficulty connecting with traditional, working-class Democratic voters -- the ones most concerned about the economy.

"We're all worried, because we should as a party be doing better," the Pennsylvania governor said.

Obama backers said they expected the Illinois senator to spend a good part of his acceptance speech Thursday talking about his economic plans. And some Tuesday speakers at the podium, like former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, did pivot toward the economy.

But in most media coverage of the event, the divisions among Democrats got in the way of the messages the Obama campaign sought to convey.

During Clinton's passionate 26-minute address -- much of which sounded like the acceptance speech she might have delivered -- her sign-waving supporters roared at references to her winning 18 million votes during the primaries and even to her pantsuits. Network television cameras frequently cut away to show her husband, former President Clinton, who has been acidly critical of the presumed nominee.

Clinton herself has worked doggedly over the last week to heal the breach, appearing at state-by-state meetings of her delegates and other supporters to urge them to transfer their allegiance to Obama.

Some got the message.

"I expected my heart to break," said Allida Black, a Virginia delegate who cashed in her retirement to volunteer all over the country for Clinton. "I am so freaking proud of her I can't stand it. She is the leader of my life. But she just gave me my marching orders. Barack won the election."

Yet other Clinton backers -- or former Clinton backers -- opened up a new line of public criticism of the Obama campaign, arguing that its convention message has been unclear and too passive toward Republican nominee John McCain.

"There's no message coming out of here," former Bill Clinton aide James Carville complained on ABC. "There is no sense that the party has a sense of urgency." After Clinton's speech, Carville declared himself relieved.

Rendell told the Washington Post that Obama hadn't delivered his message in a form clear enough to connect with most voters.

"He is a little like Adlai Stevenson," Rendell said, referring to the cerebral Illinois governor who lost two presidential races in the 1950s. "You ask him a question, and he gives you a six-minute answer, and the six-minute answer is smart as all get out, it's intellectual. . . . But it's a lousy soundbite."

Several convention speakers Tuesday sharpened the message against McCain, the thrust culminating with a tart rebuke from Clinton.

"John McCain says the economy is fundamentally sound. John McCain doesn't think that 47 million people without health insurance is a crisis," she said, adding: "With an agenda like that, it makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities. Because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart."

And Emanuel delivered a stripped-down economic message: "If John McCain has his way, your bills will continue to grow and your paycheck will continue to shrink," he warned. "In an Obama-Biden administration, American families will finally get a new deal for a new economy: a tax cut they earned, healthcare they can afford, a pension they can keep, and a college education they deserve."

In the end, Obama aides and others said they hoped that Clinton's speech marked a turning point and that the convention would resume its regularly scheduled programming: persuading voters at home that Obama should be their next president.

"It's really all about Obama's speech in the end," said Tad Devine, a strategist for the party's 2004 nominee, John F. Kerry.

"The convention is about getting American voters, particularly swing voters, to know Barack Obama and become comfortable with him," Democratic strategist Jim Jordan said. "That's all that matters."


Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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