Monday, December 04, 2006

Early ‘Maybe’ From Obama Jolts ’08 Field

WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 — Senator Barack Obama’s announcement that he might run for president is altering the early dynamics of the 2008 Democratic nominating contest. The move has created complications for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as she steps up her own preparations and is posing a threat to lesser-known Democrats trying to position themselves as alternatives to Mrs. Clinton, Democrats said Sunday.

The declaration six weeks ago by Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat, has set off a surge of interest in Democratic circles, which party officials expect will only be fueled in the coming week as Mr. Obama prepares for a day of campaignlike events in New Hampshire next Sunday.

At the least, Mr. Obama’s very high-profile explorations have contributed to a quickening of the pace across the 2008 Democratic field. On Sunday, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana said that he would create a presidential exploratory committee this week. And Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa went so far as to announce his candidacy two years before Election Day, in what his aides said was a calculated strategy to grab a moment of attention before Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton blot out the sun.

Mrs. Clinton has been meeting in recent days with New York Democrats — including a two-hour brunch on Sunday at the Manhattan apartment of Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer — to telegraph her own likely entry into the race, though her aides said the get-together had been planned before Mr. Obama discussed his possible run publicly.

But more than simply picking up the pace, Democrats increasingly believe that Mr. Obama has the potential of upending the dynamics of the 2008 contest more than any other Democrat who might run — short, perhaps, of Al Gore, the former vice president, whom some Democrats are pressing to run.

In Mr. Obama, Democrats have a prospective candidate who both underlines and compensates for the potential weaknesses that worry many Democrats about Mrs. Clinton.

He is a fervent opponent of the war in Iraq, and Democrats see him as an exceedingly warm campaigner with a compelling personality and a striking ability to command a crowd. He has no known major political baggage (though he has yet to encounter anything approaching the level of scrutiny Mrs. Clinton has undergone during her years in public life). And Mr. Obama can even match Mrs. Clinton’s arresting political storyline if he tries to became the nation’s first black president as she seeks to become its first female president.

But whatever complications he might pose for Mrs. Clinton are dwarfed by the shadow he is throwing over lesser-known Democrats. Almost without exception, they have approached this race with the same strategy: to try to emerge as the alternative to Mrs. Clinton and take advantage of substantial reservations in Democratic circles about her potential to win the White House.

There is only so much money, seasoned political expertise and media attention to go around, so the prospect of Mr. Obama eyeing the presidential nomination is understandably unsettling to his potential rivals. Whereas their original success was contingent on Mrs. Clinton folding, now they face the prospect of having to hope that two high-profile national Democrats collapse in the year leading into the Iowa caucuses.

“For every candidate in the race who isn’t Hillary Clinton, the entry of any other candidate in the races makes your job that much harder,” said Ron Klain, who worked as a senior adviser for Mr. Gore when he ran for president. “For all those guys, Obama is a very serious candidate who will compete with them for the limited supply of activists and media attention.”

Mark McKinnon, who was a top adviser to President Bush in his two White House runs and who is a senior adviser to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a likely presidential candidate in 2008, said, “I think Barack Obama is the most interesting persona to appear on the political radar screen in decades.” He added, “He’s a walking, talking hope machine, and he may reshape American politics.”

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said, “If you believe at some level that this is a zero-sum game in terms of money and supporters and talent, then any time someone gets in with a big excitement quotient, that affects everybody else.” Mr. Axelrod has worked for Mr. Vilsack and for John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who ran for president in 2004 and is likely to do so again this time.

Mr. Bayh got a reminder of that on Sunday when he appeared on “This Week” on ABC.

“What kind of a strategy do you need to combat huge political celebrities like John McCain, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton?” asked George Stephanopoulos, the program’s host.

Mr. Bayh earnestly dodged the question for a moment, before finally responding: “Is this a little bit like David and Goliath? A little bit, but as I recall, David did O.K.”

Asked repeatedly about the woman who is perceived as his most formidable challenge in the primary, Mr. Obama has been careful not to criticize Mrs. Clinton directly. But one of his central messages is that he is something Mrs. Clinton is not: a late baby boomer (he was born in 1961, at the tail end of the post-World War II generation; Mrs. Clinton was born in 1947), and a fresh face that rises above old partisan grudges.

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