Cover Story

Unify and conquer

Campaign 2008 | A new phase of the presidential campaign means an entirely new game plan for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

During the final stretch of the Democratic primaries, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., already had his eye on November. Five days before his final primary contest with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., on June 3, Obama boiled down this fall's presidential race in a fundraising email to campaign supporters: "You vs. George W. Bush."

It's a dramatic line that embodies a key piece of Obama's game plan for winning the White House in November: Make the race about voters and President Bush, as much as about the candidates running for office.

So far, the strategy has worked. Swelling crowds have packed Obama campaign events and roared when the senator criticized the president and delivered lines like: "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change we seek."

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But with the finish line to the Democratic convention now in sight, the game plan grows more complicated. A presidential race that began with more than a dozen candidates nearly 500 days ago officially narrows to two contenders in less than 90 days.

Some 50,000 people-including 5,000 delegates-are set to converge on the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver on Aug. 25 for the Democratic National Convention, where delegates will formally choose a presidential nominee.

Republicans will hold their convention the following week in Minneapolis, where they are expected to nominate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In a game with many odds stacked against him, McCain has enjoyed one distinct advantage: a three-month head start.

After sewing up the nomination in March, McCain has had time to rest, raise money, plot strategy, linger over lists of vice presidential candidates, and watch his Democratic opponents wage an exhaustive battle.

That exhausting battle both helps and hinders the presumptive Democratic nominee: During the extended contest, both Obama and Clinton raised enormous amounts of money and recruited armies of volunteers in key states. But they also sowed seeds of division that the Democratic Party will need to quickly heal in order to present a united front in November.

As Democrats finally turn their full sights on the general election, they must execute a new game plan for a new phase of the race. Look for the presumptive nominee to make several critical moves between now and Denver on the way to the finish line:

Pick a vice presidential candidate

When it comes to the importance of this move, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says: "There isn't even a close second." Speculation has swirled for months about potential vice presidential picks for the remaining presidential candidates, but Obama began a serious search in May.

Democrats close to the campaign said the senator has enlisted the help of James Johnson, a former Fannie Mae chief executive who vetted candidates for Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

It's a tricky process that requires balancing scads of competing factors. For example, if Obama chooses a seasoned party member to offset his own limited experience in government, voters might wonder if the senator was remaining true to his pledge to reject the status quo. If he chooses a candidate that would please the liberal base of his party, he could alienate moderate and independent voters key to winning the election.

One of the biggest questions surrounding Obama's pick is whether he'll choose Clinton. The New York senator told colleagues she was open to the No. 2 spot, but Obama faces a conundrum: Choosing Clinton might help heal the divided party and woo voters Obama hasn't been able to attract, but it may be difficult to set aside the acrimony and tension of the primary campaign. (During one debate, Obama told Clinton: "You're likable enough, Hillary.")

Democratic pollster Peter Hart told the Los Angeles Times that Obama may also resist adding another minority to the ticket: "When you're trying to break the first glass ceiling, it doesn't make sense to double-pane it."

Meanwhile, it's vital a candidate choose someone who can help him govern-not just help him win.

For a candidate like Obama who isn't as well-known as a 20-year veteran of the Senate like McCain, the vice presidential stakes are even higher, according to Sabato. "This will matter enormously because people don't know Obama well," he told WORLD. "That decision will say a great deal about who he is."

Spend time in battleground states

Presidential elections often come down to nail-biting races in a handful of key battleground states. That means Democrats likely won't spend lots of time trying to turn reliably red states blue, but they will try to capture states they narrowly lost in 2004.

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