Obama campaign zeroes in on red states

Democrat reaches out to Republican strongholds such as Alaska at levels unmatched by McCain

Posted: Monday, August 04, 2008

WASHINGTON - Alaska is young. Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have growing populations and many black voters. Montana has seen recent Democratic inroads, and North Dakota has sent only Democrats to Congress since 1986. Indiana borders Barack Obama's home state.

The Democratic presidential candidate is putting money and manpower in all seven of these states - at levels unmatched by Republican rival John McCain.

For decades, these states have almost exclusively voted for Republican presidential candidates and have rarely seen any campaign action. Now, thanks in part to demographic and political shifts, they are emerging as new battlegrounds.

"We have the organizational ability and the financial ability to compete there," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said recently. "There is not a head fake among them."

Undeterred, senior McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said: "We feel very confident about holding these states." He also expressed optimism that McCain can win several Democratic-leaning perennial swing targets.

In the seven historically GOP bastions, Obama has run five weeks' worth of TV ads and dispatched dozens of workers to sign up legions of unregistered voters that his campaign believes can be persuaded to support the Illinois senator in droves if courted aggressively. Among their targets are blacks and young people, two constituencies that favor Obama but historically have been unreliable voters.

McCain is largely absent from most of these states, trusting for now that right-leaning roots will prevail.

Unlike McCain, Obama had a presence in all seven during the protracted Democratic primaries and that could benefit him.

But Republicans - and even some skeptical Democrats - claim Obama simply is trying to lure McCain into spending money defending GOP turf so he has less to compete with elsewhere.

Indeed, cash flow is a major factor; Obama expects to be able to afford to compete most anywhere while McCain must be more careful with his money because he is accepting public financing and the spending limits that come with it.

Democrats see other dynamics in the states as opportunities, which Republicans say are just delusions.

Of the cluster, Virginia is most likely to go Democratic, so it's the one where McCain is competing in earnest.

Obama is advertising statewide and has opened several offices. Putting Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine on the ticket could help.

McCain's headquarters is in northern Virginia, and he has a full paid Virginia campaign staff. So far, he's only on the air in the Washington, D.C., media market that serves the burgeoning Virginia suburbs.

That's the moderate region that has helped Democrats retain the governor's office and pick up one Senate seat.

Democrats say the growing numbers of young left-leaning professionals in the north and the state's large percentage of blacks - one in five - as well as untapped pools of potential voters make Virginia a ripe target for them. More than 4 million people are eligible to vote, but roughly a third are not registered, including a half-million blacks and several hundred thousand people age 18-24.

The situation is similar in two other fast-growing Southern states.

North Carolina has seen an influx of Northern retirees settling along the coast and in the mountains, while upper-class and academic transplants from all over flock to the booming economies of the high-tech Research Triangle and the Charlotte banking hub.

"You're definitely getting a new mix," said Bill Peaslee, a former state GOP chief of staff. "Some of the old givens are no longer true. It's not how it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago."

Voter registrations are up, blacks are signing up in record numbers and a Democrat leads the state.

Recognizing a potential problem, McCain is sending a full paid staff to North Carolina though running no ads for now.

Georgia saw GOP gains in recent decades as conservatives moved in during a population spurt. It now has a Republican governor and legislature, and a strong state party organization.

Even so, Democrats see an opening among blacks who now make up 30 percent of Georgia's population. Even Republicans predict the first black major party presidential nominee will produce the largest black turnout ever.

Obama also is optimistic because the Libertarian Party candidate, former Republican Rep. Bob Barr, is from Georgia and could draw off conservative votes there.

In Indiana, Obama could benefit from his ties to the populous, heavily black northwest corner that's within Chicago's media market. He's also counting on backers in liberal-leaning university towns like South Bend and Bloomington. Choosing Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a popular two-term governor, as his running mate would give Obama a boost.

"It can't be understated that he is from our neighboring state," said Dan Parker, the state Democratic Party chairman.

Since 1936, Democrats have won Indiana once in presidential elections, 1964. Still, they have had some success on the state level and ousted three GOP incumbent congressmen in 2006. Working-class Indiana whites pose hurdles for Obama as they did in his narrow primary loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Along the U.S.-Canada border, Democratic statewide victories have emboldened Obama to make plays for Montana and North Dakota. Republicans argue Democrats who win in those states are moderate and Obama is not. Obama's campaign also is counting on residual goodwill from his primary wins in both.

In Montana, Bill Clinton showed it's worth it for a Democrat to compete hard; he narrowly won it in 1992 but narrowly lost it four years later. President Bush, however, won by enormous margins in back-to-back elections.

Nevertheless, Democrats took the governor's office back with Gov. Brian Schweitzer's election in 2004 over a Republican, and booted a GOP senator facing corruption allegations two years later to take control of both Senate seats.

Democrats claim the electorate has become more moderate as new people settled in mountainous western Montana. Republicans argue the GOP foundation is strong and note that Montana has sent a Republican to the House since 1994.

North Dakota has a GOP governor but has had an all-Democratic congressional delegation for more than two decades. Still, no Democratic presidential candidate has won the state in more than 30 years.

Obama has opened offices in North Dakota's four largest cities and has visited twice since wrapping up the nomination.

"Barack Obama coming up here and competing here is going to force John McCain to make a choice," said Jamie Selzler, the state party director. "For everything that McCain does up here, that's a little bit less that he can do in these big battleground states we always hear about."

Even farther north in far-flung Alaska, it's been three decades since a Democratic nominee won the state.

Republicans dominate the levers of power, but corruption has rocked the party, including the latest black eye: the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens this week.

All that turmoil emboldens Obama. So does the fact that Alaska is home to the nation's third-youngest population. Voter registrations among Democrats are outpacing Republicans.

Said state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat: "There is a real sense of energy coming off that campaign that is completely lacking from the other side."



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