Can Georgia Be Obama's Ohio?

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Barry Williams / Getty

U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) addresses Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

No one who has been following Barack Obama's upstart path to the Democratic presidential nomination should be surprised at his campaign's claim that he does not need to win Florida and Ohio to have a chance at winning it all in November. Obama has been pursuing an ambitious national strategy from the start.

"I'm probably the only candidate who, having won the nomination, can actually redraw the political map," Obama replied to a question about his strategy from a Concord, N.H., woman at a house party last August. Pacing around the old Victorian home, the wooden floor creaking, Obama went on: "I'll give you one specific example: Mississippi is 40% African American, but it votes 25% African American. If we just got the African Americans in Mississippi to vote their percentage, Mississippi is suddenly a Democratic state. And Georgia may be a Democratic state. Even South Carolina starts being in play. And I guarantee you African-American turnout, if I'm the nominee, goes up 30% around the country, minimum."

It was an extraordinary boast, five months before the start of the primary season. But he stuck to it as the race with Hillary Clinton wore on through the winter and spring. Whenever Clinton asserted that Obama couldn't win states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, he would respond by saying he could bring other states into play, especially in the South.

Now that he is the presumptive nominee, Obama is working hard to make good on his prediction. In briefings last week with former Hillary Clinton supporters, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said he is focusing on Georgia and Virginia as potential swing states and, depending on the outcomes of voter registration drives, he's also keeping an eye on Mississippi and Louisiana. In Georgia, the Obama campaign has wasted no time, launching massive voter registration drives before he the primaries had even ended. "By some estimates we have about 600,000 African Americans in Georgia are eligible but unregistered. I think that number is a little high, but we will be working very hard to register as many voters as we can before the election," said Jane Kidd, chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party. "Georgia is one of the most progressive southern states. There are a lot of people moving in, there's a lot of transition, a lot of progressives."

Obama has 15 full-time paid staffers who have been in Georgia for over a month. They also have had staff in North Carolina and Virginia and have been "literally moving in dozens of people every week to all three states," said Jon Carson, Obama's national field director. They also expect to have staff in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana before the end of the month. "It's very hard to sit here right now to say what's going to happen in November... Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri — which of those is going to be most winnable? So our campaign is taking the approach of casting a wide net."

Yet Obama faces an uphill battle in most of the South. Even if there is vastly increased black turnout, he still needs to draw a portion of white votes in states like Mississippi and Louisiana, where less than a quarter of whites voted for John Kerry in 2004. Though he may have a legitimate shot in Georgia, he currently trails McCain by a margin of 12.3 percentage points, according to an average of Georgia polls by the non-partisan website

In 1992 Bill Clinton lost most of the Deep South, except for Georgia and his home state of Arkansas). In Georgia the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot helped leach enough votes from President George H. W. Bush to deliver Clinton the state. This year the Libertarian candidacy of former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr could help Obama in much in the same way. "Georgia would be very much in play, even if I weren't in the race, and it will be even more so now that I am," Barr told TIME. Republican presumptive nominee John McCain "does not really have a natural constituency in Georgia. Certainly, he'll appeal to die-hard Republicans and certainly the military folks, but it's not a state, if I were advising his campaign, that I would focus on."

If Barr just wins his former district, to the west of Atlanta, he could sap more than 8% of the vote. A May Insider Advantage poll of likely Georgia voters showed Barr garnering just about that amount, to McCain's 45% and Obama's 35%. "I'm still not ready to call any of the Southern states probable for Obama," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "If the election were held now, I think McCain would hold on in all of them. But Obama is going to bury McCain in expenditures, and thus broaden the playing field in his favor, and if economic conditions don't improve rapidly, McCain's chances of winning the election are quite small."

Mike DuHaime, political director of the Republican National Committee, doesn't argue with Obama's fund-raising advantage. But he disputes the notion that Obama can afford to keep throwing money at long shots once the campaign really heats up in the fall, and he contends that Obama's defense of vulnerable states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio will be much more expensive. "It would take a major swing to swing these [Southern] states," says DuHaime. "I don't fault them for trying to expand the map, but we have better opportunities in other states that are just as big, if not bigger — Pennsylvania, Ohio, for example."

Yet McCain has shown some weakness in the South. During the primaries, he lost Georgia and much of the South to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. McCain has struggled to connect with Southern social conservatives, who are leery of his positions on issues such as global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration, domestic oil drilling and gay marriage. He's also gotten himself into trouble with high-profile Evangelicals like James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, who never warmed to the Arizona Senator and has said he won't vote for him.

There is no question that Obama can turn out Southern blacks: African-American voter participation in the 2008 Georgia primary, which Obama won by 36 percentage points over Clinton, increased 85% over the 2004 primary, for example. And there's lots of room to grow from the last general election; in 2004 just 54.3% of the 1,090,000 registered blacks in Georgia voted.

But black votes alone cannot win him Southern swing states like Georgia, according to David Bositis, senior political analyst at the non-partisan Joint Center, which tracks black voter trends. "In states that could potentially flip it isn't just about increasing black turnout. They have to be states where Obama can win a fairly significant portion of whites," Bositis said. In the Georgia primary Obama edged out Clinton among young white voters, but lost white voters over the age of 45 by more than 20 percentage points, according to CNN exit polls. Certainly, the idea of a black candidate winning the South appealed to those New Hampshirites last August — the Concord audience gave Obama's answer an ovation. But no one has to tell Obama that the North and the South don't always see eye to eye.