Obama Doubles Down

SUMTER, S.C.—During his speech at the M.H. Newton Family Life Center on Wednesday, Obama rolled out his usual riff about how Bush and Cheney won’t be on the ballot in 2008: “No Cheney! No Bush!” he said. Someone in the audience took the bait: “No Hillary!” “We won’t go there just yet,” Obama said, smiling. “We’ll get to that.”

Indeed, Obama is not going there just yet. While Hillary blitzes the 22 states that vote on Feb. 5, Obama is doubling down on South Carolina, banking that a big win in the Palmetto State will build enough momentum to launch him, Rocketeer-like, into Super Tuesday.

The result is a battle between Obama’s regional focus and Clinton’s grand strategy. Obama and John Edwards chastise Hillary for failing to appear in South Carolina so far this week, while Clinton tries to portray Obama as a one-state wonder. Her campaign’s daily e-mail blast includes “YESTERDAY IN THE STATES,” a roundup of all the things they accomplished across the Super Tuesday map, as if Jan. 26 were already over.

Obama, for his part, has been calibrating his pitch to his largely black audience. And not just the voice. (Although he did take a moment to recognize a volunteer who likes to “speak up and let folks know what she’s thankin’. “) The Sumter event also had more audience participation than usual. I wish I could take credit for all the big crowds,” Obama said. “Take it!” shouted a woman’s voice.  

Obama went after Hillary without much hesitation. He denied her claims that Obama championed Republican ideas when he called them the “party of ideas.” (An accusation that’s central to a new Clinton radio spot .) He mocked her answer at the Las Vegas debate, when she cited impatience about getting things done as her weakness. He disputed her characterization of his tax plan as containing a “trillion dollar tax increase.”

Which all points to one thing: “They’re trying to bamboozle you,” he said. “It’s the same old okey-doke.” That phrasing surprised me. You don’t see “bamboozle” and “okey-doke” much outside the context of whites trying to deceive blacks . No doubt Obama was aware of the association. He was probably trying to connect with the crowd on a personal level. But he might have thought twice about the wording, given that the Clintons and their surrogates have accused him of injecting race into the campaign.

But at this event, Obama made no attempt to skirt the subject. “I’ve been hearing people say, He can’t do it. … An African-American can’t do it, or he’s got a funny name.”   It’s true, I’d heard three people say that on Wednesday alone—one driving a cab in Washington D.C., one calling into Rush Limbaugh’s talk show, and one at a Clinton event that evening.

Of course, it’s not this crowd—or even this state—that’s going to need convincing. If you believe the pessimists, it’s the rest of the country.