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Obama's 'Bad News' Has a Lot of Silver Linings

By Tom Bevan

We're not quite halfway to the Iowa caucuses, but after months of campaigning it's time to check in on how Barack Obama is faring in his audacious bid to win the White House.

First, the bad news. Since receiving an initial bump after officially announcing for president on Feb. 10, Obama has plateaued in the polls. At the end of February, Obama stood at 24.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics Average (an aggregation of all major national surveys available at that time) while his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, was leading at 35.2 percent.

Four months later -- after countless rallies, town hall meetings, and two televised debates -- Obama is at 22.3 percent. Clinton remains well ahead at 36 percent.

It's much the same story in the early primary states. Obama is stuck in third place in Iowa and a distant second to Clinton in New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina.

More bad news: Obama continues to struggle with questions about whether or not he's up to the job. The issue of experience has been a vulnerability from the start, but Obama may have made things worse by fumbling a question in the first Democratic debate about responding to a terrorist attack against the United States.

Forget al-Qaida, Obama has to prove to liberals he's tough enough to take on his Democratic primary opponents, let alone a Republican challenger. Otherwise, Maureen Dowd's "Obambi" moniker might just stick -- and that's the kind of thing that can damage a campaign.

Now to the good news. For starters, Obama continues to rake in oodles of cash. In the first three months of 2007, Obama raised an astonishing $25 million, just slightly less than Hillary Clinton's vaunted money machine. The second quarter ends in just two weeks and rumors are already circulating that Obama will again come close to matching -- or perhaps even beating -- Clinton's fund-raising total.

More good news: Obama remains extremely likeable. He has the highest favorable rating of any Democratic candidate in the race by far. Better yet, Obama still has room for improvement, since most polls show a decent chunk of people remain either undecided in their opinion of him or haven't heard of him at all.

That stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton: Everyone has heard of her, everyone has an opinion about her and many people don't like her. She consistently has the lowest favorable ratings of any candidate in the race, and after so many years at the center of the political stage those attitudes will be extremely difficult to change.

In fact, the best news of all for Obama is his potential "electability." Though Obama hasn't made up ground against Clinton in the most recent national polls, those same surveys show him running 5-10 percent better than Clinton in matchups against the top tier Republicans. Democrats want to win the White House badly, and they'll begin to take notice if Obama continues to demonstrate a better chance of doing it than Clinton.

Finally, there's the unknown, which can be summed up in two words: Al Gore. Gore is currently polling north of 15 percent. Who does he hurt most by getting in? And if he stays out, where will that 15 percent support go? Unknown.

If the bad news doesn't sound all that bad for Obama, that's because it isn't. At least not yet. And the good news is pretty darn good. On balance, Obama remains in solid shape at this point in the race, but he'll have to turn it up a notch against Clinton this fall if he's going to play to win.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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