The questions everyone is asking this week concern the impact of momentum from the South Carolina primary, the endorsements of Barack Obama by Edward and Caroline Kennedy and the departure from the race of John Edwards. But for me, all of the remaining uncertainty about the Clinton-Obama contest boils down to one question: To what extent can Obama reassure Democratic primary and caucus voters that he is ready to be their president?
Can Obama convince a majority of Democratic primary voters that he is not only inspiring but ready to be president?
Hillary Rodham Clinton has held statistically significant leads of 15 to 20 percentage points over Barack Obama on virtually all of the 160 national polls we have tracked at Pollster.com since January 2007. In pondering whether Obama or any other Democratic candidate could overcome Clinton's long-held national advantage, three questions have always been critical.
First, would the size of Clinton's true base of support -- those willing to support her against any opponent -- be big enough to withstand any challenge? In a field of three or more candidates, her consistent support from 35 percent to 45 percent of Democrats (depending on the state) was just on the verge of being sufficient to sweep the early contests. If it dipped below 35 percent, she would be more vulnerable in the early states. Now, however, with the race having narrowed to just Clinton and Obama, the question is whether she can win the majority support necessary to secure enough delegates to win the nomination.
Second, could Obama or any of the other candidates overtake Clinton in Iowa or New Hampshire and thus gain the exposure and perceived viability necessary to compete on February 5? Obama's victories in Iowa and South Carolina -- and his subsequent rise in the national polls -- have answered that question in the affirmative. Just after the New Hampshire primary, Obama's favorable rating among Democrats had hit 73 percent (as measured by the Pew Research Center), only a few points shy of Clinton (79 percent).
So now we have one question remaining, and its answer may well determine the outcome of the race: Setting aside those already strongly committed to Clinton, can Obama convince a majority of Democratic primary voters that he is not only inspiring but ready to be president?
Clinton always leads by huge margins when pollsters ask Democratic primary voters which candidate has the most experience. To counter that, Obama argues that the ability to "change" Washington is more important than years spent there. And most Democrats seem to agree. For example, the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll finds that a majority of Democratic primary voters prefer a candidate with "fresh ideas" (52 percent) to one with "the right experience" (35 percent). The question is whether voters perceive Clinton or Obama as the best agent of change.
Obama's central challenge, however, is neither the debate about which candidate can best change Washington nor Clinton's perceived advantage in experience. Rather, the most important question is whether Obama, as that same CBS News/New York Times survey puts it, "has prepared himself well enough for the job of President and all the issues a President has to face," or whether "he needs a few more years to prepare?" A few days after the New Hampshire primary, a majority of Democratic primary voters (53 percent) believed Obama still needed more time; 40 percent said he was ready.
How will the Obama campaign change those perceptions? For February 5, they are betting on the value of endorsements. David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, telegraphed the rationale for their strategy last March in an interview with The New York Times, as he described a crucial endorsement spot he produced for Obama's 2004 Senate primary:
"When you're breaking barriers and asking voters to do something they haven't done before -- vote for an African-American for governor or senator -- it's very helpful to have third-party authentication, newspaper endorsements or institutional support, to encourage them to go there."