Obama Sharpens the Message

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Senator Barack Obama greets supporters before speaking at a town-hall meeting on Aug. 18 in New Mexico

Barack Obama seems to have gotten the message about his message. In the past few days, amid growing concerns among Democratic allies, Obama has begun campaigning in a different gear, one that is more aggressive in attacking John McCain and more focused on the economic concerns of struggling Americans.

In a town-hall meeting here on Monday, where nearly 2,000 people packed a high school gym, Obama acknowledged the worries within his party about whether he is up to what promises to be a brutal general election campaign. "Everywhere I go, people have told me, 'Oh, I'm getting nervous. The Republicans — they're so mean. What are we going to do?' " Obama said. "They did it to John Kerry. They did it to Gore. They tried to do it to Clinton; they did it to Dukakis. That's what they do. That's their politics. They don't know how to govern, but they know how to run a negative campaign. But I'm here to tell you in Albuquerque that it's not going to work this time."

Ironically, the very things that helped Obama win the Democratic nomination are unsettling his party now. Democrats fear that his lofty style of politics will be little match for a Republican opponent who is looking to be tougher than they had thought, and they worry that his message of hope — which has drawn crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a record primary turnout — is not specific enough for people who are trying to figure out how to pay for their next tank of gas and hold on to their homes. And they are anxious, too, about the toll that McCain has been taking with his television ads that portray Obama as nothing more than an empty celebrity along the lines of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

But as he prepares to name his vice presidential running mate and formally accept the Democratic nomination next week in Denver, Obama is clearly campaigning in a different mode. Where he would rarely even mention McCain in the past, Obama now openly mocks him. McCain boasts of putting country first, Obama said, "but I have to say, it's not an example of putting country first when you say George Bush's economic policies have shown 'great progress.' " As for McCain's contention that Obama would be an "economic disaster," Obama retorted, "Mr. McCain, let me explain to you. The economic disaster is happening right now. Maybe you haven't noticed."

There is also a more populist tinge to Obama's message, as he tries to draw a clearer and more detailed distinction between his policies and McCain's, particularly on taxes. McCain, he says, is promoting "$300 billion worth of tax breaks for the same folks who've been getting tax breaks under George Bush." And he told the crowd that a top McCain economic adviser (a reference to comments by former Senator Phil Gramm) "is calling you whiners. ...This guy obviously doesn't pump his own gas. He obviously doesn't do his own shopping. He's obviously not paying his own bills."

While Obama downplayed the significance of Bill Clinton's presidency when he was campaigning for the nomination against Clinton's wife, he now cites it as an economic marvel. "During Bill Clinton's era in the 1990s, incomes for the average family went up by $6,000," he said. "During George Bush's reign in the White House, we have seen the average family income go down by $1,000."

It was an acknowledgment that promises of change and hope can only get a candidate so far. Ultimately, what undecided voters will be looking at is the bottom line.