Is it time for Obama to panic?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 18 2007 7:19 PM

Time To Panic?

Obama's falling way behind Clinton in the polls. What should he do?

Barack Obama
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Barack Obama

Barack Obama is improving rapidly as a presidential candidate. His showing at the Service Employees International Union's spring health-care forum was so bad, an Obama adviser labeled it a "searing experience." But he was dazzling at an SEIU forum on Monday, putting to rest any concern that Obama is too cool and abstract to talk to regular folks. His Tuesday speech unveiling a middle-class tax-cut proposal demonstrated that Obama has moved past the uplifting, but vague, rhetoric of his early campaign and toward concrete policy ideas.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This is good news for Obama and his fans, but is it enough good news? While he's been improving, Hillary Clinton has been improving faster. He was once the Democratic Party phenomenon, but she's the one with the momentum in the polls. She now leads the national polls by 20 points. In the crucial states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, she's way ahead, too. Obama, by contrast, is doing no better in national polls than he was in February, despite vast and largely approving press coverage. He has fallen sharply in New Hampshire and South Carolina since late summer. And the betting money is moving to Clinton, too: She is crushing Obama by 68 to 16 in the political futures markets. The only decent news for Obama comes from Iowa, where he is third in the polls, but very close to Clinton and John Edwards.

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Is it time for Obama to panic?

Each day Clinton stays as the strong front-runner locks in her status a little more. Republican candidates are certainly treating her like their chief opponent, launching an intramural contest to show who can attack her more quickly and loudly. Giuliani tried to provoke a fight with her over Moveon.org's anti-Petraeus ad, and Mitt Romney held a special press conference to attack her health-care plan. This only helps Clinton's standing among Democrats.

How can Obama recover? Here's a look at what he could try and the limitations of each strategy.

Go after Clinton. It's been seven months since the first Obama/Clinton dust-up over David Geffen's negative remarks about Hillary. That spat didn't hurt Clinton at all. Two months ago, the two got into a name-calling match over who was more naive about foreign policy. Clinton came out of that fight stronger in the polls, too. Obama has been trying to paint her as a captive of lobbyists and unable to change Washington, but that attack hasn't worked, either. In June voters thought Clinton was the candidate who represented change in Washington, and they still do.

Perhaps the problem has been that Obama's attacks have been too veiled. Speaking about the Iraq war last week, he said, "Perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask the hard questions—too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves." He was talking about Clinton, but not every voter would have picked up on that. Should he start making the attacks more explicit—perhaps arguing that the partisan GOP response to her policies is exactly what her presidency would bring? (Or should he at least  keep sending his wife on the offensive?)

The big downside is that if Obama goes after Clinton, he hurts his brand. He's campaigned against gutter-style politics. Clinton's big weakness in the polls is that people don't trust her. But if he went after her for that, it would get personal and ugly fast. Iowa voters in particular tend to look down on this kind of behavior.

Let John Edwards tear down Clinton. Edwards is the Democratic candidate who looks the most like an insurgent. His strategy may seem frantic at times (no SUVs one day, no congressional health care the next), but at least he looks passionate.

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