With Republican John McCain gaining in U.S. presidential polls, Democrats have a short checklist for his rival Barack Obama: Tie McCain to an unpopular President George W. Bush. Let no charge go unanswered. And stress plans to fix the economy.
In more than a dozen interviews, prominent Democrats agreed that McCain's improved position in the race 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, who quickly added, "In my view that's not good enough. We've got a lot of work to do."
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.
Once the immediate post-convention effect wears off, "I think the race will come back to where it was, a close race, a very close race, with a slight but real advantage for Obama," said Tad Devine, who was a top aide to Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race.
At the same time, several Democrats said Obama had erred in recent days by personally trying to counter Palin, who has sparked fresh excitement among Republicans.
They added that 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 was beginning.
At the same time, several said Obama's long battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham 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 on Sept. 30. Bush won both states in 2004, and his triumph in Ohio sealed his re-election.
"We have almost a 95,000 voter registration advantage over Republicans in the state, which is a huge difference," said Scott Brennan, the Iowa Democratic chairman.
In Ohio, Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said his party has registered 900,000 new voters since March. He also said there are an additional 490,000 college students who can register and vote on the same day. "We have the best organization I've seen since 1992," he said, referring to the year Bill Clinton carried the state.
While one Democrat said he was surprised at the extent of McCain's recent gains in the polls, there was relatively little concern expressed overall.
"It would be nice if it didn't occur," said Peter Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster, but he added it is a common post-convention occurrence. "We're still going through the settling out" phase, he said.
As did others, Brodnitz said the Obama campaign "has to show they're the agent of change," and refute McCain's claims in that area.
Casey said Democrats must make sure that McCain's previous statements favorable to the privatization of government retirement benefits are well-known, as well as his votes against expanding children's health care. "I think John McCain's record is not very well-known, frankly," he added.
Palin's presence on the ticket presents a challenge for Obama, according to Democrats. "What's happened in the last two weeks has caught a lot of Democrats by surprise," said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the NDN, a think tank. "The Obama campaign and the party are recalibrating."
Several Democrats said the Alaska governor is experiencing a political honeymoon and predicted it would not last until Election Day in November. They expressed hope that the news media would investigate her record aggressively.
They also advised Obama to hand off the task of challenging her to his own running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, or to Democratic women.