It was a general election campaign strategy launched before they had even clinched the Democratic nomination.
Key campaign aides for President-elect Barack Obama said Thursday night at the Dole Institute of Politics that they had drafted plans for a broad grassroots effort to reach voters in nearly all states even before Sen. Hillary Clinton bowed out of the Democratic race.
“We made a very early decision long before the primaries were over that in the general election we were going to extensively change the map to add a whole bunch of states into the battleground that are not typically in the battleground,” said Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager.
Meanwhile, aides for Republican candidate Sen. John McCain acknowledged during the discussion about the presidential campaign that they had a difficult time overcoming Obama’s advantage in resources and President George W. Bush’s low approval ratings. They also feared that Obama would ease any fears voters had about his lack of political experience.
“Chances were he was going to win the election to be president of the United States because this was a change election” if he did overcome those fears, said Christian Ferry, McCain’s deputy campaign manager.
The campaign aides gathered with journalists and political strategists to discuss the 2008 presidential election at the Dole Institute. The Thursday evening session focused on the Obama-McCain race leading up to the end of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 28.
Ferry and Sarah Simmons, the McCain campaign’s director of strategy, said they struggled to get media attention that matched coverage of Obama and Clinton’s primary battle even though McCain had wrapped up the Republican nomination so much earlier. Their campaign staff was also not large enough toward the end of the primary to start rolling on a national level.
Pundits said Obama became a better candidate toward the end of a tough primary race with Clinton.
“You got tested big time, and I think it prepared you very effectively for the fall,” said Ed Rollins, a CNN contributor and GOP strategist.
Hildebrand and Matt Rodriguez, the Obama campaign’s regional director in the West, said McCain’s campaign stayed close enough to make them worry, including ads trying to link Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
“I started to freak out. I thought if they can brand him as a celebrity and not a leader, we can be in some serious trouble,” Hildebrand said.
However, Obama’s campaign benefited from a fundraising advantage that allowed the Democratic campaign to run more positive than negative ads that aides said helped encourage voters.
The conference will conclude with a discussion about the final weeks of the campaign and the role of the economic crisis in the race at 9:15 a.m. today at the Dole Institute on Kansas University’s West Campus. Later, video of all sessions will be available on the Dole Institute’s Web site, doleinstitute.org.