Dissecting Obama's Vulnerabilities for November Illinois Sen. Barack Obama may have won the Democratic primaries, but now he faces a potentially tough fight against GOP Arizona Sen. John McCain. Obama still needs to woo members of his Democratic base, and the Republicans have also taken note of his debate performances and temperament.
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Dissecting Obama's Vulnerabilities for November

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Dissecting Obama's Vulnerabilities for November

Dissecting Obama's Vulnerabilities for November

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Senator Barack Obama is touring battleground states all this week, where the race for the White House will be fought. He's been hammering John McCain on the economy - the number one issue for voters - and he's reaching out to those white voters in small towns in rural areas that he still needs to win over.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports that Obama enters the general election with obvious strengths but also some big vulnerabilities.

MARA LIASSON: Obama's strengths are apparent. He can draw huge crowds, register millions of new voters, and raise money like no other candidate in history. He's also a giant killer - outmaneuvering the powerful Clinton machine in a one-on-one contest. But in the end, Obama limped across the finish line. He lost nine of the last 14 primaries, and although Democrats are uniting behind their nominee, there's a lot to make them nervous about Obama's ability to beat John McCain in the fall.

Leon Panetta, who was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, points to what could be the biggest problem: Obama's weak showing with swing voters in swing states.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Former White House Chief of Staff): By virtue of having lost some of those big states and some of those very important constituencies - Latino, white rural, you know, 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. And if they open up and stay unhealed, then there's no question that he ultimately loses.

LIASSON: In the primaries, Obama won only about a third or less of the Catholic vote, the white working-class vote, Hispanics and white seniors. He even has problems with Jews - all key voting groups for a Democrat hoping to win in what could be a close race. Some of these voters might say they're wary of Obama because he didn't wear a flag pin or because he has a radical ex-pastor or because they think falsely 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 Andy Kohut thinks that could change in a general election.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (Pollster): These are pretty deep-seeded things - 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.

LIASSON: A certain number of the Hillary Clinton Democrats will come home to Obama in the fall. But what about working-class whites, Hispanics or independents who didn't vote in the Democratic primaries? According to the latest Pew poll, Obama's favorability rating among independents has dropped 13 points since February, a sign that the long primary campaign has taken its toll.

Another concern some Democrats have is toughness. Obama remained cool under pressure and never got knocked off message, but Leon Panetta is puzzled that he seemed to run out the clock instead of pushing harder at the end.

Mr. PANETTA: 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. That's something he has got to find again, because there's no question that if he thinks the primaries were tough, wait till he gets to this general election.

LIASSON: Veteran Democratic strategist Bill Kerik has spent his career handicapping political candidates, and he says Obama is not always a happy warrior.

Mr. BILL KERIK (Democratic Strategist): It's an interesting dynamic. There's an authenticity to Barack Obama that expresses itself both in good times and bad. When things are going well, he just is incandescent. But when times are tough, he looks like, well, I don't like this and I'm uncomfortable, and I'm going to let you know it.

LIASSON: Here is Obama at a news conference in March, impatiently cutting off questions about his relationship with now-convicted fund raiser Tony Rezco.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Wait, wait, guys, come on now. I just answered like eight questions.

LIASSON: Kerik also worries about Obama's uneven performance in debates, particularly the last one, where he was hammered by the moderators and his opponent, something he can look forward to again in the general.

Mr. KERIK: He's going to have to get better at debating than he's been in the primary process. He's also going to have to figure out how to put himself in the drive mode and be consistent every day, which is tough. I mean, it requires a mental and physical discipline that is unlike any other experience people have.

LIASSON: The Republicans, of course, have been taking notes. And given that John McCain is facing the worst political landscape for a Republican since Watergate, GOP pollster Glenn Bulger is relieved to find out that Obama may have feet of clay.

Mr. GLEN BULGER (GOP Pollster): Clearly some of the bloom is off the rose on Obama. 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.

LIASSON: Bulger says that because the Democrats have such a big generic advantage this year, it won't 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, using the kind of pressure that Hillary Clinton - relatively constrained by the nature of a intraparty fight - was never able to apply.

If the Democratic nominating fight was a steep learning curve for Barack Obama, the general election will feel like Mount Everest.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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