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The new conventional wisdom among the D.C. press corps is that Hillary Clinton has emerged as the front-runner to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Why? The quality of her campaign, her strong showing at the Democratic debates, the positive reception for her recent health-care plan, and, as always, the polls. National polls consistently show Clinton ahead of her Democratic rivals, and, more importantly, polls in New Hampshire, one of the earliest primary states, have shown Clinton with a comfortable lead. The sense of Clinton being in first position was reinforced on September 23, when she hit five political talk shows in one Sunday morning, and then on September 24, when word came that President Bush had weighed in on Clinton's apparent invincibility. "I believe our candidate can beat her, but it's going to be a tough race," Bush told a reporter for the Washington Examiner, after indicating that he thought Clinton would get the nod from Democratic primary voters.
As usual, however, things are much different in this Washington. Here, Barack Obama seems to be the front-runner, at least in terms of money and grassroots excitement. Obama has raised just over $740,000 in Washington for his presidential run, nearly three times as much as Clinton, who's taken in about $263,000 from this state (and considerably more than John Edwards, who has just over $399,000 from Washingtonians). With a large network of antiwar former Deaniacs behind him, Obama also has considerably more grassroots cred here than his two main rivals.
"There's something going on in Washington," says Peter Masundire, 47, a health-care consultant from South Seattle who acts as communications coordinator for Washington for Obama, an organization that operates independent of Obama's official campaign. Masundire says the number one thing pushing people in this state into the Obama camp is the Iraq war. "Obama was right on the Iraq war before it started," he told me. "So that resonates with a lot of Washington voters."
The national Obama campaign has taken notice. Jen Psaki, spokesperson for Obama, praised the "amazing grassroots energy and organization" in this state, but, no doubt because Washington's Democratic Caucuses come so late as to be almost irrelevant, Psaki also sought to paint the energy here as part of a broader trend that Clinton watchers aren't noticing. "We have this going on in a lot of parts of the country," Psaki told me over the phone from New York on September 25, where she was preparing to help with an event in Brooklyn marking the fifth anniversary of Obama's 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war authorization—that's the much-discussed speech in which Obama correctly warned that the war could lead to "a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."
It will be interesting to see whether Psaki is right that the pro-Obama energy in Washington is mirrored nationwide, but it's also interesting to wonder why it's so particularly strong here right now. Like Masundire, Psaki told me it's all about the war. "Also," she said, it's "the fact that he really is a fresh and new voice. People are really looking for a change in leadership. He's really the one candidate who can bring that about."
King County Executive Ron Sims, who recently endorsed Clinton and signed on as her campaign cochair for this state, wouldn't bite on the question of why Obama's been doing so well in Washington. Instead, Sims simply repeated one pro-Clinton talking point: "Any poll that's been done shows that she's ahead, even here." I asked: What about Obama's money momentum in Washington? Sims: "The fact is, Senator Clinton leads in the polls in this state." I asked: What about Obama's strong grassroots support here? Sims: "Senator Clinton is the poll leader here."
Knowing that there have been few polls of Washington State voters on the Democratic primary slate, I asked Sims what "polls" he was referring to. He had only one: a SurveyUSA poll from May showing Clinton at 38 percent, Obama at 30 percent, and Edwards at 19 percent.
A four-month-old poll is hardly a definitive rebuttal to the sense that Obama has become Washington's man. And in any case, Masundire told me that he believes any poll focused on likely Democratic primary voters (that is, people who have voted in Democratic primaries in the past) is going to miss a lot of Obama support. Among the Obama enthusiasts, here and around the country, who Masundire believes are going uncounted: young new voters, people who only have cell phones (and thus aren't on pollsters' call lists), and people who haven't voted in recent elections but will vote next year because of Obama.
Speaking of the D.C. prognosticators and their designation of Clinton as the front-runner, Masundire told me: "I think when the primaries come, they are really going to be surprised."