Susan Estrich: Obama Camp Gets in Gear

A fourth of July picnic in Montana, of all places... Plans to campaign at NASCAR... Accepting the nomination at a football stadium instead of the Convention Hall...

The Obama campaign is pushing the envelope, while the McCain campaign is still trying to find it.

Can Obama win Montana? If he can, it’s because he’s winning everywhere else in a landslide. But by taking his campaign to red states, Obama can force McCain to spend resources defending what should be sure-things instead of attacking Obama in his base. Add that to the fact that the privately-funded Obama is likely to have many times the resources of the publicly-funded McCain, and there is every reason for the ten year-old daughter of the Democratic nominee to be celebrating her birthday in a town where she probably knows absolutely no one. The hometown party can wait.

As for NASCAR, the only Democratic candidate who I know of to campaign there was Bill Clinton – and he won! Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Mike Dukakis or John Kerry at NASCAR, which is, of course, the point.

And while it certainly occurred to me to move Dukakis’ convention speech outside the hall in 1988, and I even suggested it to the Gore people in 2000, there are all kinds of reasons to think that Barack Obama may in fact be the first Democratic candidate since John Kennedy in 1960 who can pull off a speech to a football-size crowd.

None of these moves is without risk, of course, which is always the case when you push the envelope. There’s a good argument to be made that Obama still has plenty of problems with white working class voters in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which, unlike Montana, are must-win states for a Democrat. You can talk until you’re blue (or red) in the face about changing the map, but the fact remains that for a Democrat, it doesn’t add up without the big industrial states.

As for NASCAR, it may well be that Barack Obama grew up going to car races, and knows the culture and traditions of the car racing crowd, but if he really is a fish out of water, any misstep could be costly. If Mike Dukakis had put on a silly hat at a hospital or school, it would have been nothing more than a guy with a silly hat; his record on education and health care, and his knowledge on both those issues, would have immunized him against anything approaching the symbolic moment that his ride around on a tank, helmet fastened, became. It was precisely because he was a fish out of water at a tank factory that the picture was worth a thousand words in challenging his defense credentials. It’s like the old story of Sargent Shriver going into a working class bar in West Virginia, or was it South Boston, and ordering beers all around and a Chivas for himself.

The obvious reason to accept the nomination at a football field that seats some seventy thousand as opposed to a Convention hall which can hold a third as many people is that you have a bigger, more diverse crowd. The conventional hall would be full of delegates and alternates, fundraisers and hacks. With seventy thousand tickets to go around, you might actually have some regular people, families, even just plain voters, in the crowd. You also get credit for doing something big, bold and different, for turning a routine event into something more.

Of course, acceptance speeches are television events, judged by how they look from the vantage point of people watching at home on television. The goal is not to win the votes of the people in the room, or the stadium, but those watching at home. A speech that blows away the crowd in the stadium could easily be too "hot" when viewed in the smaller space of the family TV room. Even the most die-hard Republican would probably admit that no one can hold a candle to Barack Obama when it comes to the sort of oratory that can lift a crowd of twenty-thousand – or seventy-thousand. That’s why, at a certain point in the campaign, the Obama campaign wisely decided to focus on more intimate, town meeting style events instead of the major rallies that had been their signature.

Even so, from where I sit, the Obama campaign’s willingness to push the envelope on campaigning – whether in terms of their choice of states or venues – suggests a level of confidence in both the candidate and the strategy that is still lacking on the other side of the aisle. It’s not yet clear who is really going to be in charge of the McCain effort (Charlie Black? Mike Murphy? Someone else?), or whether the strategy is going to be to position McCain in the center, as the maverick reformer he ran as in 2000,or to try to convince the conservative base that he is really one of them, in the hopes that they will respond by running the sort of attacks against Obama that the campaign itself cannot afford, financially or politically, to mount. This should be a Democratic year, if ever there was one, but then again, Tom Bradley should have been elected Governor of California and Harvey Gant should have beaten Jesse Helms; race matters, the only question is how much. But for Democrats, the fact that the Obama campaign is together enough in July to be challenging conventional wisdom and tactics is surely a sign of strength, and the fact that political pundits and pundettes like me are writing and talking about just what the strategy will be on the Republican side is a sign of early weakness, at least.