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Running behind on star power

Times Staff Writer

Hutton Street, a modest, racially mixed working-class neighborhood on the city’s east side, was unprepared for the miniature army that invaded it one recent Saturday morning when Barack Obama decided to pay a call.

Leading a parade of bodyguards, staffers and about 20 journalists, Obama first knocked on the door of Fortino and Maria Brito. Mexican immigrants, the Britos spoke little English and the conversation was brief. A few houses down, the Democratic presidential candidate had better luck with Jody DeGard, who was “flabbergasted” to see him on her doorstep. Her support tottering between Illinois Sen. Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, DeGard said she would remember the personal touch come January’s caucuses.

Moments later, Carol Cook, an account manager for John Deere, walked out of her front door and almost fell off her porch when she saw the commotion. “Who is that?” Cook called across the street to her neighbor Dixie Edwards.

“It’s that black guy who’s running for president!” Edwards called back, prompting Cook to race over to shake his hand.

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Everywhere he goes, Obama gets a Hutton Street-style welcome.

Crowds coo, strain to shake his hand, get his autograph, take his picture. In town meetings, supporters testify with religious fervor. At a Des Moines forum on global climate change, high school physics teacher Bill Cox lobbed the ultimate love bomb: “You remind me of John Kennedy,” Cox said. “Are you going to be the person to . . . lead us to true energy independence?”

“I am the man,” Obama replied confidently, prompting an ovation.

So why isn’t Obama doing better in the polls?

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No candidate in recent memory has swept onto the national political scene with greater fanfare. Obama has been on magazine covers and talk shows. Oprah Winfrey endorsed him, and Obama Girl’s unrequited urges turned him into a YouTube sensation. He has raised nearly as much money as Clinton, and in Iowa, at least, has advertised twice as much (4,244 TV spots versus 2,192, according to the Nielsen Co.)

Yet he has been unable to translate the relentless, often fawning attention into anything approaching a surge, especially in the crucial state of Iowa. Here, where the nation’s first contest is scheduled to take place the first week of January, polls show him in a tight three-way race with Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, though Clinton has recently pulled ahead.

In New Hampshire, site of the nation’s second contest, his support has dipped and he now trails Clinton by about 20 points. But in national polls (those admittedly imperfect yardsticks), Clinton is creaming him.

Could the man have misplaced his mojo?

“I can see that the candidate has had charisma,” said Charles Kleiner, a retired Environmental Protection Agency engineer who attended an Obama town hall event at the Benton County fairgrounds recently. “And I’m getting a little leery that it’s worn out and it’s going away.”

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who worked on John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, cautioned that it was far too early to predict a winner in Iowa. Kerry, he is fond of recalling, lagged in third place until a few weeks before the caucuses. That said, Mellman is also puzzled by Obama’s poll numbers.

“There is something missing,” Mellman said. “He’s raised money in unbelievable amounts, generated tremendous enthusiasm . . . and vast amounts of publicity. And those advantages were not given to him on a silver platter. He earned them. There is something unique and special about this guy, and I don’t know why that has not translated into more support.”

After watching Obama speak on his Des Moines campus recently, Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford glimpsed one reason Obama is not faring as well as many think he should.

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“There is a tremendous curiosity factor. He radiated a certain cool that would be very attractive to college students and young people,” Goldford said. “For older voters, though” -- and half of caucusgoers are 55 or older -- “the music’s great, but where are the lyrics? He’s been trying to fill that out somewhat, but for people inclined to go to the caucus anyway, the lack of experience is significant.”

Obama, said Goldford, has a cerebral approach that leaves some voters wanting more. While Clinton is running “from the center” and former Edwards is running “from the left,” he said, Obama is “running from above.”

“He is trying to run against the process and politics as usual itself,” Goldford added. “The last person to do that successfully was President Bill Bradley in 2000.” (Rimshot, please.)

Considering the competition, said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, Obama is doing just fine in Iowa.

“We are in a dead-even race with the greatest political brand name and political machine in the Democratic Party,” he said, referring to Clinton. “And the reason for that is that people have gotten a chance to know him and see him on television and in person.”

Furthermore, Axelrod said: “We don’t have the resources or the candidate time to run a race to change national poll numbers, nor do I think we have to. This is a sequential contest, and we’re spending time where the process begins.”

Nevertheless, the campaign can ill afford to ignore Obama’s slipping national support. In an interview in Sunday’s New York Times, Obama clearly aimed to calm his increasingly jittery fundraising “bundlers” and high-level backers, vowing to get tougher with Clinton and accusing her of not being truthful about what she would do as president.

On Saturday in Des Moines, he pointedly criticized Clinton for giving vague answers about whether wages above $97,500 should be taxed to fund Social Security; Obama has said they should. In a TV ad released Sunday, he hit the same theme but never mentioned her name.

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Echoing a campaign slogan, Axelrod added, “I think people ultimately want change they can believe in. . . . As the people of Iowa get to know Barack, he is that person.”

The mantra of change makes its way into every Obama speech. On a chilly evening outside a United Auto Workers hall in Marshalltown, Iowa, he told the crowd that people “want to feel we can still rally together as Americans around a common purpose, a common destiny; that we can solve big problems here in America; . . . that we can put an end to the gridlock and go about the business of changing America. But what we realize is we can’t do that just by changing political parties in the White House; we’ve got to change our politics.”

But the “change” message may be problematic, said Dick Bennett, president of the nonpartisan polling firm American Research Group.

“When he talks about representing change, women who are considering Hillary look at him and say, If this is about change, she represents greater change than you do, simply by being a woman,” Bennett said. “That has kept her up in the polls, and all the men -- basically husbands of the women who have supported her from the beginning -- are coming around and saying, ‘Yes, I’d vote for her.’ ”

The husbands, Bennett said, are comforted knowing that Bill Clinton will be in the White House with her, “and times were good when he was president.”

Some political observers think that Obama has put himself in a box by promising to stay positive. His harshest specific criticism of Clinton is that she lacked good judgment by voting in 2002 for the resolution that authorized President Bush to invade Iraq. Obama, who was running for the U.S. Senate at the time, opposed it.

Bill Carrick, a California political consultant, is puzzled by Obama’s failure to catch fire, calling it “one of the great enigmas of presidential politics.”

Partly, he said, that’s because Clinton is a formidable opponent who has yet to make a major gaffe -- but partly, it’s Obama’s gentle style.

“Obama has to understand, regardless of his fundraising success and early polling, he is a long shot,” said Carrick, who managed Dick Gephardt’s presidential campaigns. “She is not easy to beat, and you’ve got to take some risks. Some of these presentations he makes about his position on the war and hers, it would take a constitutional scholar to tell you what he’s really saying, he’s so oblique. . . . He’s too soft.” (Obama, as it happens, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.)

Last week, the Obama campaign ratcheted up the rhetoric a bit when it fired off a memo calling Clinton a “quasi-incumbent” and accusing her of “attacking” him when she referred to his answer to a debate question about negotiating with enemies as “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

But on the ground, in those intimate Iowa settings where voters come in person to take the measure of the candidate, his rhetoric is mild.

In a meeting hall at the fairground in rural Tipton, Obama was pointedly invited to criticize Clinton recently when a 65-year-old woman asked, “Why should I vote for you instead of Hillary Clinton?”

Instead, he gave a somewhat rambling answer that began by complimenting Clinton as “very capable,” “smart” and “tough.” He also said she would be a “vast improvement over George Bush.” Then he mildly knocked her for what he called her “conventional” views on foreign policy. Five minutes later, he concluded: “If you’re still unpersuaded, talk to me afterwards, ‘cause I got more stuff for you, but I don’t want to use up all my time.”

Outside afterward, retired social studies teacher David Hunt was charged up. “I have never seen as much excitement generated by a candidate as by Obama!” said Hunt, a John Edwards supporter who was surprised to see several Republican neighbors in the room.

The afterglow, however, was short-lived.

“I am not necessarily going to switch over to Obama,” Hunt said a few days later by phone. “But I was really impressed.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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