Sen. Barack Obama is not looking back. In a flurry of campaign activity since Friday’s debate, the Democratic presidential nominee hit several large rallies, paired up with Sen. Joe Biden, his running mate, for two joint events, delivered a keynote address to a Congressional Black Caucus gala, sat for a half-hour grilling on “Face The Nation,” huddled with advisers in Chicago and prepared for a tour through Western swing states early this week.
In interviews and discussions aboard the campaign bus, Obama’s aides sold the packed schedule as a contrast to Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, who hunkered down in Washington after the debate, continuing his strategy of playing economic statesman inside the Beltway. “As John McCain sat in his condominium in Arlington, Sen. Obama spoke directly with more than 20,000 voters in North Carolina,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
While all campaigns declare victory after debates, the Obama camp’s post-debate posture looks more like genuine offense than strategic bluffing.
Snap surveys and traditional polling after Friday’s debate largely favored Obama, which campaign manager David Plouffe heralded in a presentation for the traveling press. He pointed to a CBS survey indicating that after the debate, the number of uncommitted voters who said Obama understands their “needs and problems” jumped 21 points, to 79 percent. In a separate question about McCain’s standing, the Republican nominee improved 5 points on that score, from 36 to 41 percent.
Plouffe argued that Obama’s increase was striking because he already had a “healthy edge” on understanding people’s problems. The campaign also flagged a new USA Today/Gallup poll showing that 12 percent more debate viewers thought Obama won on Friday — 46 percent said Obama did better, while only 34 percent who said Mccain did better.
Yet Obama’s aides did not address a significant setback in the same debate polling. While Obama used the debate to prioritize his signature issue of opposing the Iraq war, a view now shared by most of the public, more voters actually thought McCain would make the “right choices” in Iraq.
In fact, McCain’s support on that measure jumped 12 points among uncommitted voters after the debate — to 56 percent. Only 48 percent of voters said the same about Obama, who gained four points on Iraq from the debate, according to the CBS poll of uncommitted voters. Sensing an opening, GOP operatives spent the weekend blasting Obama for advancing a “misguided and weak” foreign policy that offers “defeat” in Iraq.
Without directly responding, Obama’s campaign appears to have staked its confidence on the surveys showing a lead among debate viewers — which suggests that the Iraq issue did not hinder Obama’s overall standing.
The ultimate indicator of a campaign’s confidence, however, is not in the spin or the early polls or debate reviews. It is written, with sparse prose studded with logistics, in a nominee’s weekly schedule.
Obama’s current itinerary reinforces his retooled stump speech: It is a portrait of bullish offense.
Since the debate, Obama has drawn crowds topping 20,000 in two reliably red states, North Carolina and Virginia. It is hard to imagine McCain pulling off the same feat in, say, California. Then, Obama pulled 36,000 to a Sunday rally in the pale blue state of Michigan.
Obama may have been cool and cordial during the debate, but he punched hard at those weekend rallies. He alternatively blasted and mocked his opponent’s campaign. Looking over crowd of 20,000 in Greensboro, N.C., on early Saturday morning, Obama made a show of laughing at McCain’s newfound interest in running as a change agent. “He’s been grabbing our signs, using our slogans. Come on, John!” Obama said, “come up with your own stuff!”
Later, at a large 26,000-person rally at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, where the soccer team rescheduled a game to accommodate the campaign stop, Biden reinforced Obama’s post-debate aggression. He assailed McCain for saying after 9/11 that the U.S. could simply invade “Iraq, Iran or Syria” in retribution for the attacks. The GOP nominee was “dangerously wrong,” Biden hollered, for mistaking Iraq as the central front in the battle against terrorists.
On the economy, Biden depicted McCain as erratic and out of touch, “lurching” between opposite positions. “I served with John McCain,” he said, explaining that he had personally seen McCain devote a career to deregulation and “tethered to Bush’s economic policies.”
As dusk turned to darkness, and rain drenched the enthusiastic young crowd, Obama repeated his core attack on McCain’s debate performance. “Through 90 minutes of debating, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but he had nothing to say about you,” Obama thundered.
The rain kept coming until Obama’s white dress shirt was soaked through. Biden even interrupted, to offer him a baseball cap as protection from the downpour, but Obama declined. The rough weather seemed to mirror Obama’s outrage against McCain’s debate performance: “He didn’t even say the words ‘middle class’ — not once!”
Just as he had at other stops, Obama mixed righteous indignation with withering ridicule. Reprising McCain’s now infamous line about fighting earmarks for bear research in Montana, Obama channeled Jon Stewart to dismiss this as a distraction. “He’s really hung up on those bears,” he said to laughter and applause.
Obama also tweaked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for her doubletalk on earmarks. If you believe McCain and Palin will cut their lobbyist ties after they reach the White House, Obama told the students, “I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Alaska!”
Obama’s happy warrior vibe carried over off-stage, as best I could tell. He made a rare social visit to the press section of “O Force One” on Saturday afternoon, congratulating a Wall Street Journal reporter on her recent engagement. He joshed around, inspecting her ring, asking where her fiancé worked (Goldman Sachs), and bantering with a few other reporters about baseball. Obama looked perfectly happy, and only begged off after a reporter asked a serious question about the debate.
The first presidential debate was widely covered as a draw, though undecided voters leaned towards Obama anyway. That may reflect a gravitational shift towards the Democratic nominee, regardless of his prime-time sparring ability, but even that dynamic could lull Obama into complacency. Some supporters worry that even when he’s doing well, Obama is doing just enough to get by.
“This debate was Obama’s whole campaign in miniature: morally ambiguous, a slew of missed opportunities for devastating blows and a fundamental lack of a well-crafted plan,” wrote Paul Rosenberg on the liberal blog OpenLeft. In the end, he concluded, it was little more than “a good-enough strategic posture smoothly executed to pull out a tie, which is all he really needed.” Obama probably needs more to close the deal.
On Monday, Obama continues his offensive, visiting two states Bush carried in 2004 that could tip the election. He first has a rally at a high school gym in Westminster, Colo., then a stop in Nevada. Yet if swing voters there take to his current style — calm in debate, aggressive on the stump — then Obama may just be a happy warrior long past November.
For a look at how race, gender and class issues are impacting Obama's campaign, check out James Carroll's
in today's Boston Globe.