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Obama's 'Anyone But Hillary' Strategy

By Blake D. Dvorak

Two events, about a week apart, help illustrate the contest between the two leading Democratic candidates. The first, as reported by the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, took place in Colorado at the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival, where Bill Clinton strode the stage to introduce his wife and received a standing ovation from the cheering crowd. As Fund wrote, "The Clinton magic clearly still works for many people."

The other event, beginning in Huntsville, Ala., was a less raucous affair. As the Birmingham News reported Tuesday, Barack Obama was on a sweep of the state during which he pulled in more than $100,000. While Obama spoke at a $1,000-plate luncheon audience, outside gathered a small crowd of supporters; one of them held a sign that read "Anybody but Hillary Even You."

Later, at a stop in Birmingham, Obama spoke to 2,000 cheering fans: "Americans are hungry for change. They are desperate for something new. We have had so much dysfunction, so much nonsense ... in Washington, D.C., that people have just said enough." Yes, he was referring to President Bush and the GOP, but Obama was also talking about the reunion tour going on in Aspen.

Two events, two sets of adoring fans, and a 15-point spread separating Hillary Clinton from Obama, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics Average. Indeed, Clinton's strategy of creating an aura of inevitability, despite her high unfavorable score, seems to be working, as chief strategist Mark Penn wants everyone to know:

"In recent election cycles, any time a candidate has had as much as 35 or 40 percent of the vote consistently across polls in a multi-candidate field, that candidate has gone on to win the nomination," he wrote in a recent memo. Never mind Penn's bizarre reference to Walter Mondale in the very next sentence, the man has a point.

Things look worse for Obama when one starts digging into those very same polls to see how Democratic voters are breaking down. In a June 4 Washington Post/ABC News poll, asked to name which candidate was the strongest leader, 50% said Clinton, 26% said Obama; asked who would best handle a major crisis, 47% said Clinton, 24% Obama; and, finally, asked who had the best experience to be president, 66% said Clinton, while just 9% said Obama. No matter which party one is talking about, those three criteria - strength, good judgment and experience - are how Americans choose presidents.

It's in the fundraising race where Obama is truly complicating Clinton's coronation. Obama has raised over $58 million in two quarters from an astounding 258,000 donors. Where Penn exploits poll numbers, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe uses fundraising numbers to argue, as he did in his own memo, that "the American people are demanding real change, a politics of principle and not just expediency."

Which is just a slightly more condensed version of what Obama told the crowd in Birmingham. And if it's even half true, it is also exactly why that guy standing outside the Heritage Club of Huntsville holding the sign "Anybody But Hillary Even You" is Obama's best chance of catching the frontrunner.

That's because "Anyone But Hillary" appeals to the two sets of voters Obama most needs to capture, the far left and the more moderate independents, who, with the implosion of the GOP, are steadily moving toward the Democratic Party in greater numbers. A June 13 American Research Group poll of likely Democratic primary voters found that among self-identified Democrats, Clinton trounces Obama 42% to 17%. But among Democratic-leaning independents, Obama leads Clinton 29% to 23%.

It might not seem possible for a candidate to appeal to both the far left and moderate independents at the same time, but Obama is uniquely positioned to do just this. With the far left, Obama has the distinct advantage of having been against the Iraq war from the beginning. But while Iraq remains the single most important issue with the far left, it also believes Obama is at heart a true liberal. The left will tolerate a certain amount of politicking; what it won't tolerate is a candidate who might betray its core principles once in office, as it feels Bill Clinton did all too often and as Hillary did in 2002 with her war vote.

On the other side of the "Anyone But Hillary" coin are the moderate independents who are drawn to Obama's innate political gifts and his call for a new kind of politics. When they see Obama, they don't see, as the left does, a true believer; they see a break with the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynastic succession. Obama hasn't come out and said it, at least not yet, but the underlying message of his "vote for change" themed campaign is whether average, non-ideological Americans really want even four more years of a cycle that began in 1989.

And yet, as the cheering throngs who greeted Bill Clinton testify, Obama still has to convince a large segment of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents why a return to the 1990s is both bad for the party and the country. That won't be easy to do without employing the style of politics Obama says is destroying Washington. Then again, Obama was never going to get through this campaign squeaky-clean.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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