In recent weeks, Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod has met with major contributors at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters and in private homes to allay concerns about his candidate’s lack of movement in the national polls. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has presided over conference calls to calm down jittery bundlers. The candidate himself has even gotten on the phone with groups of big donors to assure them that the campaign is on the right track.
“They were spending time trying to make all of us confident that there is a strategy,” said one major donor to Mr. Obama, who attended a meeting of the campaign’s finance team at the Chicago headquarters about a month ago. “And I remember David [Axelrod] saying that he thought Barack was positioned well. And all of a sudden it’s turning into October, and I’m not sure I see a strategy. And if it is being implemented—I’m not sure I see it being implemented so effectively.
“Is it frustrating? Highly,” said the donor. “National polls do matter, number one. They say don’t worry, don’t worry, we’re positioned well. Well, what does that mean?”
It’s not just the donors who are vexed by the campaign’s cavalier attitude in reaction to the pummeling they are taking from Mrs. Clinton.
When asked about Mr. Obama’s low national poll numbers, one of his most prominent African-American supporters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said, “They matter.”
In an interview on Sept. 27 at Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative in Manhattan, Mr. Jackson, a former presidential candidate and Obama backer, said the rest of the country would ultimately influence Iowa and New Hampshire voters, “because those states are in the nation.”
“Even on a local level, people start looking at which way is the country going, you know?” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s like boxing—you keep waiting for the big knockout punch, but while you’ve waited for the big knockout punch you’ve lost so many points. And that one big one might not be coming.
“My support has not wavered for him,” added Mr. Jackson. “But my approach for getting the nation’s attention would be different.”
As Mrs. Clinton’s lead hardens around the country—she is now in front by double digits in national polls and has comfortable leads in many of the early voting primary states—Mr. Obama’s chief advisers calmly say everything is going as planned. But the patience of some supporters is wearing thin.
Nearly every day, they watch as the once-fawning national media begins to portray the Obama candidacy as a fascinating-but-temporary diversion from the inexorability of the Clinton juggernaut.
The coverage seemed to take a hard turn in the last week of September, when the front page of The New York Times asserted that “Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has consolidated her early lead in the Democratic presidential contest,” and one day later Dan Balz wrote on The Washington Post’s Web site that Mrs. Clinton “now sits atop the Democratic field, in a tier by herself.” That narrative will only become more ingrained after the Clinton campaign’s announcement on Oct. 2 that they had raised about $3 million more this quarter for the primaries.
At the same time, Mr. Obama has limited response options. He has cast himself as the champion of a new kind of politics, opening him up to charges of hypocrisy if he were to attack Mrs. Clinton too directly. There is also the not-insignificant matter of Mr. Obama’s race, which—some of his staunchest supporters say privately—is more likely to count against him the moment he stops being seen as a conciliator.
Mr. Obama’s senior advisers say it still is early, and that the state of play nationally is far less important than what’s happening in Iowa, where they have an extensive grass-roots operation, nearly $3 million of television advertising and even, according to a Newsweek poll released on Saturday, a slight lead among likely caucus-goers.
On Oct. 1, the campaign reported another strong quarterly fund-raising result, with 93,000 new donors, another $19 million of primary money and a total of at least $74.9 million of primary funds raised. (Although that number was dwarfed the next day by Mrs. Clinton’s $22 million.)
In a phone interview, deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said that Mr. Obama’s money, combined with the dramatic compression of the primary calendar, would allow him—alone among the other contenders—to remain a viable challenger to Mrs. Clinton.
“On the Democratic side, there are only going to be two candidates who will have the funds to compete in 25 states in 30 days, and that’s Hillary and Barack,” he said.
Nevertheless, he continued, the tone for all those primaries and caucuses will be set in Iowa, where he says he is deeply unimpressed with Mrs. Clinton’s performance.
“The number that I pay attention to more than anything else is her number,” said Mr. Hildebrand. “For all that Bill and Hillary Clinton have meant to Democratic primary voters, she is getting one-fourth of the vote. By all accounts the incumbent in this race, the people have the highest expectations and the most knowledge about her, and she only has one-fourth of the vote in Iowa.”
The campaign’s plan is straightforward. As John Edwards’ support continues to erode, Mr. Obama will pick up Edwards supporters and build momentum against Mrs. Clinton.
“John Edwards is a fresher candidate, like Barack is, and they hold similar positions on special interest groups and lobbyists and those kind of change traditions,” said Mr. Hildebrand. “He is a candidate of change much like Barack Obama is, so I’m hopeful that if voters begin to walk away from Edwards, and we don’t know that they are going to, but if they do, they will take a very hard look at Barack and come on board with us.
“What happens if all the impressions are that it is inevitable that she is going to win, and then she loses Iowa?” Mr. Hildebrand said. “What happens then?”
It’s become a familiar theme from Mr. Obama’s handlers.
Talking at an Obama rally in Washington Square Park last week, Robert Gibbs, the campaign’s communications director, suggested that the media was misinterpreting the early Clinton lead as something newsworthy.
“I don’t think the media is so good at understanding either how to win a campaign or a primary or an election,” said Mr. Gibbs. “Look, there is no doubt that she has had the most formidable political machine; they’ve built it for 20 years. She is going to lead in the national polls for many more months now. None of that to me is even remotely surprising.”
And he echoed his campaign colleagues in emphasizing Mr. Obama’s competitiveness in Iowa, and his long-term strategy.
“I’ll tell you why everybody’s calm,” said Mr. Gibbs. “They have never elected a nominee in October and September. Our campaign has never been set up to win the nomination in September and October. It has always been geared to win the nomination in January and February when real people go vote.”
But if the campaign is calm, some of its key supporters are growing less so by the day.
“Many of us expected the gap to close more quickly,” said Marilyn Katz, an Obama donor and political consultant based in Chicago. She said the message that the campaign is pushing in private meetings and conference calls is “don’t be confused” by the national polls. She expressed confidence in the campaign but acknowledged that the current conventional wisdom has caused a “dislocated anxiety in the campaign.”
“I don’t think there is panic,” she said. “But there is this sort of expectation that if you are a meteor you are going to stay in the sky, and it’s just not true and that’s just not how it is.”
Ms. Katz said she saw the logic in concentrating on the primary states to avoid full engagement with Mrs. Clinton and her daunting national infrastructure.
“This is the strategy they have chosen,” said Ms. Katz, adding, “Would I do it exactly the same way? No.”
In September, Mr. Axelrod, Mr. Hildebrand and some policy experts went to the house of donor Judy Wise in Chicago to update supporters on Mr. Obama’s positions on key issues and to reassure his top contributors that the campaign was performing well. They seemed receptive—to a point.
“Steve Hildebrand did a very good job of reassuring people that in the early states he is very competitive,” said Ms. Wise. “Obviously, they have made some choices here.”
She said she was personally not discouraged by Obama’s trailing in national polls, and said that on several conference calls, Mr. Obama himself had told donors, “‘Look at what is going on in these states where we are really focusing our energy and where our ads are running, look at those polls and how quickly things can change if things go well in those early states.’”
Another prominent Obama donor, based in New York, said that Mr. Plouffe had visited New York recently to explain to donors the campaign’s strategy of concentrating on early primary states.
The donor said that he had been hearing some fellow donors express frustration about Mr. Obama not taking a more aggressive stance against Mrs. Clinton. “It’s definitely the case that they are not doing anything overtly aggressive to attack her, and my view is that she has gotten, by and large, a free pass,” said the donor. At the same time, the donor said a sharper pitch would be inconsistent with Obama’s image and “was not what this campaign wants to do. And I completely support that.”
Toward the end of Mr. Obama’s rally in Washington Square Park on Sept. 27, the candidate told the crowd, without mentioning Mrs. Clinton by name, “There are easier choices to make in this election. There are safer choices to make.” He continued: “There are competent people who will manage the system as it is and will tinker around with things and certainly will be an improvement over George Bush.” He left the larger point—that he was more than merely “competent”—unspoken.
After he finished talking, Mr. Obama shook the hands of the front rows of ecstatic supporters while the speakers played the lyrics “Everything’s going to be alright” from a song called “Believe.”
“He’s building credibility for the long term,” said Josh Marcus, a 19-year-old business student at N.Y.U. who said he supported Mr. Obama but doubted he would win the nomination in 2008. “He is a young guy who is going to be around for a long time.”