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Post-N.H., Obama Needs to Answer 'Where's the Beef?'

By Mort Kondracke

MANCHESTER, N.H. - A door-to-door canvasser here for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told me all during the weekend before Tuesday's primary that his team was encountering independent voters torn between Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Surely an anomaly, I thought. Then I ran into such a voter, a teacher taking her young daughter to campaign events. I asked her, "What about Barack Obama?"

"I've seen him five times," she said. "What he says sounds great, but it's all fluff. There's no meat there."

And that, I think, is one reason Clinton pulled out a campaign-saving victory over the Illinois Democrat here.

Welling tears may have helped "humanize" Clinton, especially with women voters, but I think she also made a dent with her updated version of Walter Mondale's 1984 taunt of his "new ideas" challenger, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.): "Where's the beef?"

Obama delivers thrilling speeches about "hope" and "change" and ending the poisonous partisanship that consumes Washington.

His crowds love the message, as do I. But they seem to cheer him most when he refers to what can be done if the partisanship ends -- 47 million people can get health insurance, the planet can be saved from global warming, teachers will be better rewarded, youngsters will have early-childhood education, etc.

But it's a litany of objectives pretty much devoid of details. And Obama rarely engages in question-and-answer sessions with voters to give them a chance to draw him out -- or him, to show how thoughtful he is.

Right now, he's a national Rorschach test, with voters reading into him their fondest hopes for what America can do and be. He's very good, but the New Hampshire results indicate that Democrats aren't yet ready to anoint him. Outside one rally in Lebanon, N.H., I asked Obama campaign manager David Axelrod if more substantive speeches were coming soon. He said that they were, after Obama nailed down endorsements from the culinary workers union in Nevada and some politicians he wouldn't name -- reportedly, some Senators.

He got the culinary workers -- a big coup -- but Senatorial endorsements aren't flooding in yet. It is time for Obama to put more meat on the bones and show where the beef is.

On the Republican side, it also would be advisable for McCain -- after his astounding political resurrection here -- to adapt his "I talk straight" and "I'm ready to lead" messages to address middle-class economic anxiety in upcoming races in Michigan and South Carolina, where populist-sounding former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee may have more appeal than he did in New Hampshire.

McCain has talked from time to time about the idea of offering workers "wage insurance" to protect them against losses if they lose a job and are forced to take one at less pay. He needs to emphasize that -- and also to make the case that free trade is long-term good for American workers.

Huckabee is saying it isn't.

McCain also has to fend off former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is now portraying himself, like all the Democratic candidates, as an "agent of change" and charging that it's impossible for a "Washington insider," i.e., McCain, to change that "broken" town.

Answering back, McCain could cite all the maverick reformist stances he's taken -- campaign finance reform and earmark control, for example -- but some new policy ideas for the middle class also would help.

Romney also ought to be spelling out just how -- with all the orthodox right-wing positions he's taken -- he could repair the "brokenness" of Washington that he rightly says now makes it impossible to balance budgets, control illegal immigration, improve the schools and ensure that Americans keep the best jobs in the world.

Back on the Democratic side, meantime, Clinton's surprising victory seems to have been the product of three major factors -- organization, women's turnout and last-minute doubts about Obama.

Pre-election polls showing Obama with a huge lead didn't anticipate that 57 percent of Democratic primary voters would be women, who went for Clinton by a margin of 47 percent to 34 percent for Obama and 15 percent for former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

Clinton also carried voters over 40 years old and under $50,000 in income -- though, also those from $150,000 to $200,000 -- and she won among registered Democrats by a margin of 45 percent to 34 percent over Obama.

Undoubtedly, Clinton was helped by the enormous publicity given her emotional welling-up at a diner on Monday -- which I think was a genuine response to an expected loss --but also by charges she made that she could deliver change and Obama couldn't.

Clinton also decided to engage in exhaustive Q and A sessions with voters -- lasting 90 minutes at one event I attended in Nashua -- demonstrating her exhaustive grasp of policy detail. She answered the questions cheerfully, too.

New Hampshire, I think, served as a check on a runaway romance they might regret. In effect, voters here decided to give other states a chance to find out about Obama: Is he John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter?

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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