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Obama's backers insist polls belie a buzz they see on trail

A poll last week showed Senator Barack Obama, shown yesterday in Columbia, S.C., more than 20 points behind Hillary Clinton. A poll last week showed Senator Barack Obama, shown yesterday in Columbia, S.C., more than 20 points behind Hillary Clinton. (C. Aluka Berry/the state/associated press)

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. - It's a warm fall morning in southwest New Hampshire and people are streaming onto a farm to see Barack Obama speak in front of a red clapboard barn. They are young, old, walking, in wheelchairs, dressed up, and dressed down - about 1,000 in all.

The gathering is massive for Peterborough, population 6,000, but hardly surprising: For months, Obama has drawn huge crowds in big cities, small hamlets, and every place in between, a reflection of the infectious excitement his candidacy has generated.

"We just have to turn the people into votes," a young, clipboard-wielding Obama volunteer tells a man arriving for the rally.

That simple imperative crystallizes perfectly the challenge facing Obama as the Democratic primary race enters the crucial three months before voters in Iowa and New Hampshire begin choosing the party's nominee. His powerful and growing grass-roots network - reaffirmed by thousands of new donors in the third quarter of this year - has reached historic proportions. But his poll numbers in early primary states are largely flat.

A survey released last week by the University of New Hampshire showed rival Hillary Clinton leading Obama 43 percent to 20 percent among likely Democratic voters, matching her largest margin in the Granite State. Outside of Iowa, where polls indicate a tight three-way race, Clinton also holds substantial leads.

Pundits, commentators, and even some Obama supporters have begun to ask: How will he move the needle?

"I don't understand why he's 20 points behind Hillary," said Timothy Steele, an Obama enthusiast from Hancock, N.H., who runs a medical-device company. "It's really at a point when it should start being urgent."

At the same time, voters in New Hampshire and Iowa are notoriously hard to pin down in polls. Even many Clinton supporters are not fully committed - only 17 percent of respondents in the UNH survey said they had definitely made up their minds. And the TV ad wars have yet to begin in earnest.

"He's still in the game, and he's still hunting for votes. He's just an underdog in this race," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign and is neutral this cycle. "Barack is going into the final 13 weeks of the campaign in great shape."

Obama's advisers say they are confident they have the organization, the buzz, the money, and the candidate with a message the country is hungry for. And they say that, despite the intense media scrutiny and onslaught of state and national polls, most people have yet to really focus on the race.

"The reality is both sides know [the polls] don't count until January," said Ned Helms, cochairman of Obama's New Hampshire campaign.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, argued that most voters not with Clinton at this point will never be, and that gives Obama a huge opportunity if he can capitalize on it.

"We are building the organization and the foundation of support in the early states we need to," he said, dismissing the fixation on Obama's standing in the polls. "The truth is all this turbulence is annoying, and that's all it is."

Indeed, despite Clinton's dominance in most state surveys, independent specialists say the political landscapes in Iowa and New Hampshire are fluid.

Ann Selzer, a pollster in Des Moines, said the primary race in Iowa feels more volatile than it did in 2004 because voters indicate they are happy with more than one candidate. She said Obama has a "big job" ahead of him to solidify his support and make sure the first-time caucus-goers in his corner actually turn out.

Obama has intensified his campaigning in Iowa, airing two new TV ads, bringing on a well-connected Democratic activist, and launching a four-day "Judgment and Experience Tour" across the state this week to highlight his long-running opposition to the Iraq war. Plouffe told reporters in a conference call last week that while the campaign always thought Iowa would have an outsized influence on the nomination process, they believe that even more strongly today.

In New Hampshire, Obama's campaign hopes its first TV ad, which started airing last week, will produce a bump in the polls over the next month. Up to now, Clinton has successfully painted herself as the candidate of both change and experience, putting Obama in a tough spot, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

"If you get perceived that you're not experienced enough and you're not ready for the big-time yet, it's hard to convince people later on that you really are," he said.

What Obama has going for him, Smith said, is that he is viewed as the most likable candidate and that many voters have not yet paid close attention, let alone made a firm decision. He noted that polls showed Howard Dean leading by 20 percent in New Hampshire in late December 2003, only to lose by about 14 points a few weeks later.

"I think all the people who support Hillary have already decided," said Nancy Gillam, a stay-at-home mother from Lyndeborough, N.H., who came to Obama's rally in Peterborough. "Everyone else is still picking or hasn't decided."

Standing nearby, Terry Kepner, a 55-year-old Radio Shack employee from Bennington, N.H., said he liked both Clinton and Obama but would not decide until the last minute.

"I make my decision when I walk in," he said.

Many other variables could fundamentally alter the Democratic primary race: Whom will the large percentage of undecided African-American women voters support? Would a victory by Obama or former senator John Edwards of North Carolina in Iowa upend the whole thing? How will independents vote?

Obama has made a concerted effort to draw young people into his campaign, so one factor in his success may be how potent a force they are. Indications are that 18- to 30-year-olds will vote heavily in 2008 - even more than in the last two national elections, when their participation jumped markedly, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

"If it's a battle between Hillary and Barack, it doesn't take a lot to win," Obama's state director in New Hampshire, Matt Rodriguez, told Dartmouth College students last week, according to the Hotline, National Journal's daily briefing on politics. "Think about what a few thousand young people would mean."

In fact, some believe Obama's support is underrepresented in primary-state polls, because many 20-somethings have only cellphones and their numbers do not show up on pollsters' calling lists. Still, specialists say, a heavy turnout of young voters could change things by only a few percentage points, and they will be a boon for a candidate like Obama only if he can ensure they vote.

"They may be overwhelmingly in his camp, but can he get them to the polls?" asked Bruce Schulman, a professor of political history at Boston University.

It is not just young people who are smitten with Obama, though, and supporters believe his fans of all stripes will turn out in sufficient numbers to upend what today may seem to be the likely outcome.

"This is my first campaign, and I think I'm turning into an addict," Amanda Kelley, an Obama fan from St. Charles, Mo., wrote in an e-mail. "I check Barackobama.com every hour, I volunteer for everything I can, and the people I've met I am now seeing every week. There is a rejuvenated sense of personal empowerment that Obama generates which helps drive people to continue to move forward despite the polls, and the media."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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