With John McCain gaining in the polls, Democrats have a short checklist for Barack Obama: Tie the Republican to an unpopular President Bush. Let no charge go unanswered. And stress plans to fix the economy.
In more than a dozen interviews, prominent Democrats agreed McCain's improved position is due to a predictable gain after a successful national convention and likely to subside in the next several days.
Yet there was also a recognition that Obama's campaign needs improvements and that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's selection as McCain's running mate shook up the race.
Obama is “ahead by a couple of points in Pennsylvania at this point,” said the state's Sen. Bob Casey. “In my view, that's not good enough. We've got a lot of work to do.”
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Casey's summation – confidence tempered by concern that the race is far from settled – was a common theme among party strategists, state chairmen, lawmakers and others.
At the same time, several Democrats said Obama had erred in recent days by personally trying to counter Palin, who has sparked excitement among many Republicans.
They said the result was to dilute the time and focus Obama could devote to McCain.
In addition, several Democrats said disapprovingly that the Obama campaign has rejected pleas to encourage the creation of outside political groups that can accept donations in unlimited amounts – entities that could air commercials to diminish Palin's standing or free up party funds for other uses.
They also said his campaign must do more to stress the anti-abortion views of McCain and – particularly – his running mate. The issue is key to suburban women voters in several states, including Pennsylvania, who support abortion rights.
None of those interviewed agreed to place their criticisms on the record, saying they did not want to create evidence of Democratic dissension as the fall campaign begins.
At the same time, several said Obama's long battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination was paying dividends. They cited strong organizations in states such as Pennsylvania, where victory is critical to the Democrats' chances of winning the White House.
They also pointed to Iowa, where any voter is eligible to cast an absentee ballot beginning Sept. 25, and Ohio, where a one-week early-voting window opens Sept. 30. Bush won both states in 2004, and his triumph in Ohio sealed his re-election.