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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama waves to supporters during a rally in Bristow, Va., on June 5, 2008. Virginia could be a swing state in the fall.
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Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama stand at their podiums at the National Constitution Center on April 16, 2008, in Philadelphia. Some critics thought Obama's debate performance there was weak.
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Democrat Barack Obama is continuing his tour this week of battleground states, where his biggest campaign vulnerability comes from swing voters.
Obama's strengths are obvious. The Illinois senator can draw huge crowds, register millions of new voters and raise money like no other candidate in history. He is also a giant-slayer, meaning he managed to outmaneuver the powerful Clinton machine in a one-on-one contest.
But in the end, Obama wheezed across the finish line. He lost nine of the last 14 primaries, and although Democrats are uniting behind their nominee, there is a lot to make them nervous about Obama's ability to beat rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the fall.
Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton, says Obama still faces problems with swing voters in swing states.
"By virtue of having lost some of those big states and some of those very important constituencies that are important — Latino, white, rural, a lot of the blue-collar women's vote — he can't afford to not get those votes back in the Democratic Party. ... Those fault lines have cost the Democrats, I think, seven of the last 10 presidential races," he says.
"If they open up and stay unhealed, then there's no question that he ultimately loses," Panetta adds.
Key Constituencies Need Wooing
In the primaries, Obama won only about one-third or less of the Catholic vote, the white working-class vote, Hispanics and white seniors. He even has problems with Jewish voters. These will all be key voting groups for a Democrat hoping to win in the fall.
Some of these voters might say that they are wary of Obama because he did not wear a flag pin, or because he had a radical ex-pastor, or because they falsely think that he's a Muslim. In the later primaries, one in five white voters admitted to exit pollsters that race was a factor in their refusal to vote for Obama.
But pollster Andrew Kohut thinks that could change in the general election. "These are some deep-seated things," Kohut says. "Race is an issue. On the other hand, these are his weaknesses relative to Hillary Clinton. We don't know what his weaknesses are relative to John McCain."
A certain number of Hillary Clinton Democrats will come home to Obama. But what about working-class whites, Hispanics or independents who did not vote in the Democratic primaries? Since February, Obama's favorability rating among independents has dropped from 63 percent to 49 percent — still healthy, but a sign that the long primary campaign took its toll.
How 'Tough' Is Obama?
Obama remained cool under pressure and never got knocked off message during the primary season. But Panetta is puzzled that Obama seemed to run out the clock instead of pushing harder toward the end.
"Whether it was exhaustion, or whether it was just kind of hoping that you could ride your early victories, there didn't seem to be that continuing fight that you have to have if you're going to win an election," he says. "That is something that he has got to find again, because there's no question that, if he thinks the primaries were tough, wait till he gets to the general election."
Veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick has spent his career handicapping politicians. He says Obama was not always a happy warrior.
"It's an interesting dynamic," Carrick says. "There's an authenticity to Barack Obama that expresses itself in both good times and bad. When things are going well, he's incandescent. But when times are tough, he looks like, 'Well, I don't like this, and I'm uncomfortable, and I'm gonna let you know it.' "
Carrick also worries about Obama's uneven performance in debates, particularly the last one in April in Philadelphia against Clinton. When he was hammered by both Clinton and the moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, it was a preview of the type of fights he will have to endure for the general election.
"He's going to have to get better at debating than he's been in the primary process," Carrick says. "He's also going to have to figure out how to pull himself out and put himself in drive mode and be consistent everyday, which is tough. It requires a mental and physical discipline that is unlike any other experience people have."
Republicans Taking Notes on Obama's Weaknesses
Given that McCain is facing the worst political landscape for a Republican since Watergate, GOP pollster Glenn Bolger is relieved to find out that Obama may have feet of clay.
"Clearly, some of the bloom is off the rose on Obama," he says. "He's not walking on water right now, like he was a couple of months ago. He seems to be annoyed by some of the demands of the job of campaigning."
Bolger says because the Democrats have such a big generic advantage this year, it will not be possible to defeat Obama just by calling him a liberal or saying his record doesn't match his rhetoric.
Instead, Republicans will be trying to make Obama slip up by pressuring him. If the Democratic nominating fight was a steep learning curve for Obama, the general election could feel like Mount Everest.