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Obama strategy will be tested

He now must rebuild his get-out-the-vote machine almost from scratch. First stops: Iowa and Florida.

May 21, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama declared Tuesday night that he has now secured a majority of the elected delegates in his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination. But just as important as reaching that landmark is the symbolism of where he chose to celebrate it -- in Iowa -- and where he will campaign today -- in Florida.

With a rally in downtown Des Moines after his primary victory in Oregon and his defeat in Kentucky, Obama returned to the state where nearly five months ago he defied expectations and organized his way to his first victory.

In the Iowa contest, he transformed the electorate by mobilizing new and younger voters, a tactic that helped him win in unexpected states and has brought him to the cusp of the nomination.

Now, with a three-day swing through Florida, Obama begins his effort to organize his way to victory in November. Nowhere will that be more daunting than Florida, a Republican-leaning battleground state where Obama has not appeared in public for many months.

"This is a completely new ballgame and a completely different ballgame, and a much more difficult ballgame," said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who supported Obama's rival for the nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Just because you've organized Democrats in caucuses and primaries, it takes much more than that in a general election."

The extended fight with Clinton helped Obama build volunteer networks and burnish his get-out-the-vote techniques in less populous general-election battleground states, such as Colorado. But winning Florida's 27 Electoral College votes will require him to build his campaign machinery almost from scratch.

Obama, like Clinton, did not compete in the state's disputed January primary, and he lost that vote to Clinton by a wide margin. Clinton appears intent on reminding voters of that -- leaving the primary campaign trail to make three stops today in South Florida. Clinton has insisted that she is in the race until all the votes are counted.

As Obama looks toward the general election, Florida figures prominently in his strategy. Winning the state would do serious damage to the Republican plan for building a majority in the Electoral College, and competing there would force the GOP to spend precious resources in a state that it must win to keep the White House.

In recent days, the Obama campaign has shifted as many as 15 staff members to Florida, launching a massive voter registration drive targeting young people and African Americans.

Campaign volunteers appeared over the weekend in Miami at a Haitian Flag Day event, trying to make gains in an immigrant community that leans Democratic but that lags in voter participation.

Obama hopes to draw about 20,000 supporters at a rally today in Tampa, but more important will be his outreach to key demographic groups that he has had trouble winning in past primaries.

Also today, he will court the fast-growing Puerto Rican community in suburban Orlando, connecting with a Democratic-leaning group that has been open in recent elections to Republicans, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Later in the week, he will hold a town hall meeting at a synagogue, talking with seniors and Jews, two groups that have been Clinton's base.

And on Friday, Obama takes the unusual step of addressing the Cuban American National Foundation, the most prominent group in an exile community that for decades has aligned itself with Republicans.

The Florida efforts are being replicated nationally, with staff being dispatched to Michigan, where Obama's name did not appear on the disputed primary ballot, as well as the key battleground state of Ohio.

As in Florida, Obama's campaign has begun a national voter registration drive that uses some of the same "microtargeting" techniques honed by Republicans in the 2004 presidential campaign, which sought to locate new, GOP-leaning voters who might otherwise have been overlooked.

For Obama, enlarging the pool of voters who turn out in November is crucial. Not only will he face stiff competition from presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who appeals to independents and conservative Democrats, but he has had trouble winning support in the primaries from lower-income white voters, Catholics, Latinos and Jews, which are potentially decisive groups in several of the big battleground states.

Showing that he has a plan to compete in Florida also addresses a shorter-term concern, as Obama still must win undecided party insiders, or "superdelegates," in order to clinch the nomination.

Clinton aides have been arguing to many of those party leaders that she would put Florida in play, while recent surveys show Obama to be weaker in that state against McCain. And in her Kentucky victory speech Tuesday night, Clinton argued that the party should choose a nominee who can "beat Sen. McCain in the swing states."

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