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For Obama, a challenge to clarify his message

For Senator Barack Obama, the theatrics and drama of this one are overwhelming one of his most important tasks here: connecting with the economic anxiety gripping voters and convincing them that he has concrete and achievable solutions.
Image: Barack Obama speaks during a townhall meeting at the Kansas City international airport
Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a townhall meeting at the American Airlines overhaul base at the Kansas City international airport in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Modern presidential conventions are mostly political circus, but for Senator Barack Obama, the question is whether the theatrics and drama of this one are overwhelming one of his most important tasks here: connecting with the economic anxiety gripping voters and convincing them that he has concrete and achievable solutions.

Democrats here are talking about the ailing economy, selling Mr. Obama’s policy prescriptions, offering biting indictments of Republican policies and trying to tie Senator John McCain irrevocably to President Bush.

Mr. Obama is broadcasting a new advertisement mocking Mr. McCain’s admitted lack of background in economics. But at a convention where the attention has been focused on political superstars new and old, and the narratives of personality and conflict — urged along by the McCain campaign — it is not clear that the message is getting through.

The challenge for Mr. Obama in establishing his identity as the best economic steward for a hurting nation was evident with Tuesday night’s highlight: the speech by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, who nearly won the Democratic nomination with a late appeal to middle-class anxieties, used her formal concession to restate those campaign themes and to make a rousing case for reversing eight years of conservative economic policies — though with Mr. Obama as president.

But it is not clear whether her substantive case would break through the story line about how well she would do in easing tensions with Mr. Obama and unifying the party. And just like on Monday night, when an emotional appearance by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and a speech by Michelle Obama dominated the coverage, the roster of speakers seeking to promote Mr. Obama as the answer to American’s economic ills and Mr. McCain as worse than a third Bush term was barely seen on television.

That blurring of the intended focus on Mr. Obama’s economic message captures a continuing struggle that Mr. Obama is having: With four nights of free prime-time television coverage, he is trying to define himself personally for voters, and to win over holdout Clinton supporters, while at the same time seeking to define himself substantively. Failing at either could cost him the election.

Mrs. Clinton’s success during their rivalry in casting herself as the working-class candidate nearly cost Mr. Obama the nomination. Mr. Obama, with what campaign aides say is a sharper message, now is trying to assume that mantle.

But things will not get any easier for him on Wednesday night, when the focus is on former President Bill Clinton, and just what he will say to sell voters on the younger man whose success so clearly frustrated him during the oft-bitter nomination race. Mr. Obama gets the final word on Thursday, with a nomination speech that aides say will deal heavily with defining the economic stakes.

The Obama campaign pushed back hard against the televised comment on Monday night by James Carville, architect of Mr. Clinton’s 1992 campaign and its mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” that the Obama campaign was squandering its time in the spotlight. After Monday’s emotional program devoted to the ailing Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Obama, Mr. Carville said on CNN, “If this party has a message, it’s done a hell of a job of hiding it tonight, I promise you that.”

Bill Burton, a spokesman for Mr. Obama, dismissed that remark as “a case of premature speculation.”

“There are several things we’re accomplishing this week at the convention,” Mr. Burton said. “Last night we were successful in making sure the American people knew where Senator Obama was coming from. And throughout the rest of it we’re going to make sure that folks know exactly what the choice is between Obama and McCain.”

Mrs. Clinton intended her speech to help define the economic stakes for the middle class in the Nov. 4 election, and to make those issues central to her good-loser pitch on behalf of Mr. Obama.

But along with half the convention nights dominated by the two Clintons’ speeches, a major distraction has been the media’s attention to the lingering hard-feelings of some Clinton delegates here.

That has frustrated not only Obama advisers trying to amplify their man’s message, but even some on the Clinton side. Mrs. Clinton’s longtime senior adviser, Ann Lewis, said on Tuesday that she had been visiting delegations both from states that Mrs. Clinton won and those that Mr. Obama won, and had been reassured by the party unity among the loyalists of the former rivals.

Yet, when Ms. Lewis meets with reporters, she said, all the questions are about “the war going on.”

Then there are the intensifying advertising wars between the Obama and McCain forces, separate from the convention, that have allowed Mr. McCain to undercut the Democrat’s claims to leadership on the economy or anything else. In particular, the McCain campaign has hammered on the theme of Mr. Obama as a celebrity, all fame and little substance. “Celebrities like to spend their millions,” one advertisement says. “Barack Obama is no different. Only it’s your money he wants to spend.”

The Obama side has countered with a new advertisement of its own, lampooning Mr. McCain’s remark confessing that he does not much understand economics. To the tune of “Wonderful Word (Don’t Know Much)”, a singer intones:

Don’t know much about industry.

Really can’t explain the price of gas,

or what has happened to the middle class.

A photo of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush embracing fills the screen.

Obama advisers say the economic message turned sharper in the past weeks; it continued on Tuesday as Mr. Obama campaigned in Kansas City, Mo., ahead of his arrival here. A third-generation aviation-industry worker introduced him as a “true working-man’s president.” Mr. Obama, in turn, called Mr. McCain “out of touch,” and again raised Mr. McCain’s recent inability to say how many residences the McCains have.

Mr. Obama’s more muscular economic message only underscores some Democrats’ private criticism that Mr. Obama did not do so as soon as he had beaten Mrs. Clinton.

Late or not, “I think it’s getting through,” said Jason Furman, an economic adviser to Mr. Obama, “and will get through even more” for the campaign’s final two months.

This story, For Obama, a Challenge to Clarify His Message, first appeared in The New York Times.