Barack Obama under fire for ignoring advice on how to beat John McCain
Barack Obama and his senior advisers are under fire for ignoring the advice of Democratic senators and governors who are concerned that they do not know how to beat John McCain.
By Tim Shipman in Washington
13 Sep 2008
The Democratic presidential candidate's slump in the polls has sparked pointed private criticism that he is squandering a once-in-a-generation chance to win back the White House.
Party elders also believe the Obama camp is in denial about warnings from Democratic pollsters that his true standing is four to six points lower than that in published polls because of hidden racism from voters - something that would put him a long way behind Mr McCain.
The Sunday Telegraph has learned that senators, governors and union leaders who have experience of winning hard-fought races in swing states have been bombarding Obamas campaign headquarters with telephone calls offering advice. But many of those calls have not been returned.
A senior Democratic strategist, who has played a prominent role in two presidential campaigns, told The Sunday Telegraph: "These guys are on the verge of blowing the greatest gimme in the history of American politics. They're the most arrogant bunch Ive ever seen. They won't accept that they are losing and they won't listen."
After leading throughout the year, Mr Obama now trails Mr McCain by two to three points in national polls.
Party leaders and commentators say that the Democrat candidate spent too much of the summer enjoying his own popularity and not enough defining his positions on the economy - the number one issue for voters - or reaching out to those blue collar workers whose votes he needs if he is to beat Mr McCain.
Others concede that his trip to Europe was a distraction that enhanced his celebrity status rather than his electability on Main Street, USA.
Since Sarah Palin was unveiled as Mr McCain's running mate, the Obama camp has faced accusations that it has been pushed off message and has been limp in responding to attacks.
A Democratic National Committee official told The Sunday Telegraph: "I really find it offensive when Democrats ask the Republicans not to be nasty to us, which is effectively what Obama keeps doing. They know thats how the game is played."
Mr Obama tried to answer that critique on Friday when he responded in kind, issuing an attack advert depicting his Republican opponent as out of touch and mocking the 72-year-old Mr McCain's confession that he does not know how to use email.
He rammed home the point during a rally in New Hampshire, pointing out Mr McCains recent admission that he was divorced from some of the challenges of ordinary Americans.
Mr Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, called it the first day of the rest of the campaign.
But that was the fourth time in the last nine months that Mr Obamas team have been forced to declare that the gloves are coming off. And Mr Plouffe's dismissal of Democratic doubts as hand-wringing and bed-wetting only served to reinforce the growing doubts about what some see as a bunker mentality among Obamas inner circle - where outside advice, even from highly experienced people, is not welcomed.
The Democratic strategist told The Sunday Telegraph: "They think they know best. They don't return calls. There are governors and senators calling them up with ideas. They don't get back to them.
"These are senior people from the border states and the South who know how to beat Republicans, and they're being ignored. They ignored everyone during the primaries and they came through it, so they think they can do the same again."
Mr Obama has never won an electoral contest against a strong Republican candidate. David Axelrod, his chief strategist has been hailed as a political genius for beating the Clinton machine, but Democrats now point out that he has never run a successful campaign in the heartland states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia, which will decide the election. His expertise is in mobilising young, educated and black voters in urban areas.
Mark Cunningham of the New York Post summed up the private views of many: "If it suddenly seems like the Obama campaign doesn't have any idea what it's doing, maybe that's because it doesn't."
Party elders are also studying internal polling material which warns the Obama camp that his true standing is worse than it appears in polls because voters lie to polling companies about their reluctance to vote for a black candidate. The phenomenon is known in the US as the Bradley effect, after Tom Bradley, a black candidate for governor of California who lost after leading comfortably in polls.
The strategist said: "I've seen memos where they've been told to factor in four to six points for the Bradley effect, but they're in denial about it.
They say the polls also underestimate the enthusiasm of young voters and African Americans and they believe that balances things out. But that's a wing and a prayer stuff. There's previous evidence for the Bradley effect."
Other Democrats are openly mocking of Mr Obama's much vaunted "50-state strategy", in which he spends money campaigning throughout the US in the hope that it will force Mr McCain to divert funds to previously safe states. Critics say a utopian belief in bringing the nation together has trumped the cold electoral calculus that is necessary to triumph in November.
Doug Schoen, a former pollster for Bill Clinton, last week declared it insanity not to concentrate resources on the swing states.
The Democratic strategist said: "My Republican friends think its mad. Before Sarah Palin came along we were investing money in Alaska, for Christ's sake, that could have been spent in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"It assumes Republicans are stupid and, when it comes to winning elections, they're not."
The one thing everyone agrees the Obama camp have woken up to is the toxic effect on their chances of Mrs Palin's arrival on the national scene. Polls show that white women voters, attracted to her down home virtues, now support Mr McCain by a margin of 12 points, the same lead among white women that George W. Bush enjoyed over John Kerry in 2004. Until recently, Mr Obama led among that group of voters by six points.
A senior aide to one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives voiced the fears of many: "Palin doesn't just play to the Republican base. She has much broader appeal."
The aide said that her repeated mockery of Mr Obama's boasts about his time as a community organiser in Chicago are "the most effective criticisms of Barack Obama we have yet seen." He said: "Americans in small and medium size towns dont know what the hell a community organiser is. Real Americans graduate from high school or college and get a job that pays a wage. Campus radicals go off and organise a community."
Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter, blamed the defection of women voters from Mr Obama on the atom bomb of ritual abuse by left-wing bloggers and Democratic officials, painting Mrs Palin as a bad mother and religious weirdo.
Ms Noonan wrote: "The snobbery of it, the meanness of it, reminded the entire country, for the first time in a decade, what it is they don't like about the Left."
The Republican strategist Dan Schnur said that the effect was to repel blue collar, family-oriented voters. "They didn't like Obama in the primaries and voted for Hillary. And they still don't like him now so they're voting for Palin.
"Obama can still win these voters over, but his difficulty in establishing an emotional connection with them is probably his greatest challenge between now and election day."
On Thursday Mr Obama did take advice from Bill Clinton, who is understood to have suggested ways to show those workers that he cares, an area where the former president excelled.
But it is a measure of his plight that the man who derailed the ambitions of Mrs Clinton, the most powerful woman in Democratic politics, now needs help from her husband to overcome the popularity of another alpha female who may be an even greater risk to his White House ambitions.