Saturday, October 11, 2008

Leading in polls, Obama plays it safe

Refers to McCain as 'my opponent,' let's allies respond to sharp attacks

Alex Brandon / AP

Sen. Barack Obama at a rally at the Genoa Park and Amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday.

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Leading in polls with 25 days to the election, Democrat Barack Obama is playing it safe, offering careful proposals to address the economic crisis while letting allies respond to John McCain's sharpest charges.

The Democratic presidential nominee, famous for his unscripted oratory, now reads his speeches from TelePrompTers, reducing the chance of gaffes. He has not held a news conference in two weeks, although he has done several one-on-one interviews with national and local reporters.

He now refers to Republican John McCain as "my opponent" more often than by name. And he offers carefully limited, comparatively non-controversial remedies for the nation's financial crisis.

Publicly, Obama's aides say he keeps a calm demeanor and measured tone because he doesn't want to fuel the anguish and panic caused by the economic meltdown. Privately, they acknowledge there is no desire to shake up a campaign dynamic that is inching him closer to the White House.

"I don't like to yell," Obama told more than 10,000 people in Columbus on Friday, his fifth large rally in hotly contested Ohio in two days. He was referring to a sound-system glitch, but it could have been a metaphor for his home-stretch strategy.

"He's responding just right, and the polls are reflecting it," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who campaigned with Obama this week and helped lead the counterattacks against McCain. When GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke in Ohio on Thursday, Brown said, she spent too much time on issues such as Obama's ties to Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers, now a college professor in Chicago.

"People are saying, 'What about our jobs, what about the banking situation?'" Brown said.

On Friday as McCain rolled out a new TV ad with his sharpest language yet about Ayers, the sharpest Democratic response came from Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, who told an audience in Springfield, Mo., that McCain is trying to "take the lowest road to the highest office in America."

Careful balance

Obama is seeking a careful balance these days. He criticizes details of McCain's chief economic proposals, and he briefly and broadly disputes Republican attacks on his character, not getting into details. That seems to satisfy Democratic stalwarts who feel recent nominees were too slow to respond to character attacks.

Obama devotes more time to explaining his own long-standing proposals for tax cuts and energy investments. On Friday, he added a temporary program of tax breaks, low-interest government and government-backed private loans for small businesses having trouble borrowing to meet payrolls, maintain inventories or expand.

When this careful rhetoric threatened to bore crowds seeking rhetorical fireworks and when the economic problems turned into a crisis, he added more upbeat lines to his stump speech.

"Now is not the time for fear," Obama said at every Ohio stop this week. "Now is the time for resolve and steady leadership."

Unless asked, he does not mention McCain's and Palin's fiercest line of attack: that he has associated with Ayers, a former 1960s radical who helped found the violent Weather Underground. When questioned on a radio talk show this week, Obama said that when he began working with Ayers on two nonprofit organization boards in Chicago a quarter century later he thought that the college professor, who lives in his neighborhood, had been rehabilitated.

Increasingly, high-profile supporters take the sharper jabs at McCain before Obama comes on stage. On a sunny street with a few thousand people in Chillicothe, Ohio, on Friday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland played the part.

"The McCain-Palin campaign and some of their followers unfortunately want you to be afraid of Barack Obama," he said, adding that "others" have spread untruths about the nominee.

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