tampabay.com

The easy case for President Obama

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 13, 2007


In recent weeks, we have been trying to make the case for how each major 2008 presidential contender could win. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. This week, Democrat Barack Obama.

 

Name one of our state senators. Mike Fasano? Charlie Justice? Victor Crist? Now imagine him winning the White House in four years.

Nutty as it sounds, that's precisely the career trajectory Barack Obama is on the way to accomplishing. Anyone who underestimates the Illinois senator's prospects at winning the presidency isn't paying close attention.

The first-term U.S. senator who talks in paragraphs more than sound bites is actually keeping up in fundraising with the titan, Hillary Clinton. He's built a formidable campaign organization and generating more grass-roots excitement than anyone.

The latest national polls show him beating any potential Republican nominee by a greater margin than any other Democrat. Antiwar Internet activists are embracing his candidacy, along with former top-shelf George Bush "Pioneer" fundraisers.

It's no fluke that when Michelle Obama, his wife, raises money in Jacksonville Wednesday, she will be hosted by Bobby Stein, a Republican investor who supported Bush in 2004 and Republican Tom Gallagher for governor last year. Or that Tampa businessman and philanthropist Frank Morsani, a lifelong Republican, recently wrote a $2, 300 check so he could see Obama in person.

Morsani, like so many other Americans, is fed up with partisan fighting in Washington and both parties being dominated by their extremes. Obama hasn't closed the sale yet, but Morsani so far likes what he sees from the former Chicago community organizer and Harvard Law Review president.

"The nation is looking for someone that can build bridges, that can bring people together, " said Tampa businessman Frank Sanchez, a former Clinton administration official backing Obama. "Of all the candidates, whether it's Republican or Democrat, Barack Obama can do that."

If you believe that the 2008 election is above all about change and that voters fed up with the tone of American politics are hungry for something new, Obama, 45, is the ideal candidate. Hillary Clinton sure doesn't look like a fresh face to bridge the partisan divide.

It's long been clear that one Democrat would emerge as the anti-Hillary candidate in the primary, but less clear how vulnerable Clinton would prove. Given that she's universally known and still rarely cracks 40 percent in polls of Democrats, it's obvious a well-funded alternative can beat her.

Given that so many states have scheduled early primaries or caucuses, its also crucial for campaigns to build strong ground organizations to ensure success and momentum in early states. Obama has been drawing enormous crowds in places like New Hampshire, Iowa, even Ybor City, and his campaign is working hard to harness that early energy.

"We are being surgical and obsessive about making sure we capture this enthusiasm, " said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Clinton remains the favorite for the nomination, but her aura of inevitability collapsed last month when finance reports showed Obama's insurgent campaign had actually outraised the New York senator, nearly $25-million to $19-million. She has more money in the bank, but he had more than twice as many donors.

In a crowded field where at least 20 states may vote on Feb. 5, 2008, campaign money can't be underestimated. As the field of aspiring Hillary alternatives winnows, that only helps Obama.

"We're going to be competing everywhere on Feb. 5. The only other person that can say that is Hillary, " said Miami lawyer Kirk Wager, Obama's Florida finance chairman.

Given his lack of experience on the national stage, Obama, of course, must hope that the 2008 election is more about change than it is about the war on terror. But even there judgment may trump experience; unlike his leading rivals, Obama opposed invading Iraq from the start.

"I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. ... I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida, " Obama said in 2002.

"In some ways, Obama's redefining what experience is. His line - 'look what experience has gotten us' - I think that resonates, " said Bernie Campbell of Tampa, a veteran Democratic consultant who sees Obama as a strong contender.

"He's got a message that competes, he's got a staff that competes, and he's got the money that competes, " said Campbell.

Once he beats Clinton in the primary, the general election looks almost easy given the state of the Republican image lately. That Obama is winning over his share of Republicans at the same time he's pulling liberals from Clinton's camp, shows how strong he could be in the general election.

Never underestimate the strength of a candidate that a broad array of people feel good about supporting. Barack Obama, the embodiment of the American dream, may prove the perfect candidate for an electorate hungry for optimism.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.