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."
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.
Obama has already made multiple trips to Iowa and Ohio, where Bush won in 2004 by 1 and 2 percentage points, respectively. Democrats also need to court Michigan and Florida, borderline states largely ignored by Democratic candidates during the primaries. (The Democratic Party penalized the states for moving forward their primaries earlier in the year.)
The senator will also go west, where he's already spent time wooing voters in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. Bush won all three states by 5 points or less in 2004, picking up 19 electoral votes. Kerry fell short in the Electoral College by 19 votes that year.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, an Obama supporter, said the three-state sweep is critical: "If we win these three states, plus the traditional Democratic base, he is president."
But the West won't be won without a fight. McCain has represented Arizona for more than 20 years, and he has enjoyed popularity among Hispanic voters for his comprehensive immigration reform bill that failed to pass last year but positioned him as a sympathetic voice for immigrants.
This is one move Democratic candidates have mastered in mind-boggling fashion. By March of this year, both Clinton and Obama had raised so much money their electronic fundraising reports couldn't be processed by basic spreadsheet applications like Microsoft Excel 2003.
On this front, McCain has the most work to do. Though he had raised a hefty $96.6 million by the end of April, Obama had raised more than $265 million. (Clinton raised $214 million in the same period.)
Obama's haul puts him in a comfortable position: Though the candidate has spent three times as much as McCain during the primary season, he also has twice as much cash on hand. (Obama has spent $218 million and reported $46 million cash on hand going into May.)
The one bright spot for the GOP: The Republican Party is outstripping the Democratic Party in fundraising. By the end of March, the Republican National Committee (RNC) had raised $31 million, while the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had raised only $6 million. Party leaders say the difference is largely due to donors giving large amounts of money to Democratic candidates instead of the party during the extended primary season.
Whatever the reason, the divide puts the RNC-which can spend money on McCain's behalf-in a comfortable position ahead of the conventions: With a significantly larger budget, the RNC can launch a large-scale media campaign against the presumptive Democratic nominee early on-something the DNC can't afford to do this summer.
Talk about campaign issues
While Clinton is famous for her wonkish approach to policy issues, Obama has long faced criticism that his campaign is big on style, short on substance.
On the campaign trail, Obama has spoken in sweeping terms about the need for change on issues like the economy, health care, and the war in Iraq, while spending less time outlining how to accomplish such change. Out of hundreds of Obama campaign staffers, The Washington Post reports only seven are devoted to policy.
McCain began pounding Obama on policy issues in May, saying the senator had too little information to make decisions about the war in Iraq. McCain-who has traveled to Iraq eight times since the war began-pointed out that Obama has made the trip only once. (Obama visited Iraq in January 2006 as part of a congressional delegation.)
Needling the candidate, McCain offered to accompany Obama to Iraq to help him gain a better understanding of the war. Obama called McCain's proposal a political stunt but said he's considering a trip to Iraq later this summer.
Look for Obama to spend more time fleshing out policy details on other issues this summer as well.
Craft a message and unify the party
While Obama hammers out policy, the candidate will continue hammering in what the University of Virginia's Sabato calls the central message of his campaign: "I'm not Bush." The second part of that message, according to Sabato: "You're going to get Bush's third term with McCain."
Sabato told WORLD that Obama would focus on the areas where voters are most disgruntled: "Bush, Iraq, and the economy. That's it. It's the whole campaign, and it's a strong campaign."
Rallying voters against "a third Bush term" may also help unify a party divided after an acrimonious primary battle. Whether McCain can withstand that drumbeat depends partly on his ability to distance himself from Bush, a difficult task for a Republican nominee.
Confront the X-factor
This may be the trickiest move of all: The biggest challenges candidates face may be factors neither can anticipate.
Unforeseen world events-and perhaps unforeseen scandal-could await both candidates, and Sabato says that's where voters may learn the most. "The candidates will be thrown some curve balls, and we learn about them by how they react to them," he says. "They're the X-factor, and they're things no one can predict."
Since 2000, when President George W. Bush claimed the White House despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore, dissatisfaction with the Electoral College system has surged. But the need for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the longstanding and convoluted process has blocked serious discussion of change-until now.
With the addition of Hawaii on May 1, the National Popular Vote Bill has now passed into law in four states and is under consideration in dozens more. In passing the bill, states agree to disregard their individual tally and award all their presidential electors to whichever candidate receives the most votes nationwide. The compact only takes effect once enough states have signed on to make up a majority of the Electoral College, thereby ensuring a popular vote victory.
Supporters of the movement believe this year's election may serve as a springboard for their cause. With early polls of a head-to-head matchup between Barack Obama and John McCain indicating fewer battleground states than ever, a large majority of the country may feel frustrated that its votes in so-called throw-away states are less meaningful.
In a state like Alabama, for example, where polls show McCain with as much as a 28-point lead, neither candidate is likely to waste time or money fighting for electors already effectively determined. Obama supporters living in Alabama would have little reason to participate, just as McCain supporters might consider their votes irrelevant in a state like New York.
Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, believes such potential frustration will push legislators to keep the 2000 scenario from ever happening again: "If people notice that and get all the more bugged by it, they'll say, 'We don't need to do this again. We have a vehicle for changing,'" he said. "It's not going to be in place this year, but there's every reason to believe it can be in place in 2012."
Critics of a national popular vote worry that it will diminish the importance of small states, whose current allotment of two electors to coincide with two senators helps balance the lopsided importance of high-population states like California or Texas. With no such balancing force, critics say, candidates would focus exclusively on high population centers. "This is precisely the imbalance the framers of our U.S. Constitution sought to avoid," wrote Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas in vetoing the bill in his state last month.
But Richie and other supporters contend that deference to the popular vote would expand the areas of focused campaigning by making every vote of equal value no matter if located outside the battleground states.
What impact might the initiative have politically? It would hand a slight advantage to Democrats, given that small states, most of which vote Republican, would lose their disproportional influence. Nevertheless, polls indicate more than 70 percent of Americans favor a national popular vote, and the current bill boasts hundreds of supporting politicians, many of GOP stripe.