A strong fundraising performance by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose $25 million total nearly matched that of Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, came as welcome news Wednesday for a campaign beginning to face criticism as lacking substance.
Obama, a freshman lawmaker making his first try for the White House, has surged to the fore in the Democratic field, thanks in large part to his compelling biography and message of hope and political healing. With Wednesday’s announcement, he proved himself to be a fundraising powerhouse.
Obama said he raised more than $25 million from 100,000 donors in the first quarter of the year. Clinton raised $26 million from 50,000 donors in the first quarter, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards raised $14 million, their campaigns said previously.
“It is very impressive, extremely impressive,” said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, of Los Angeles, who has not taken sides in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Obama’s strong first-quarter showing comes as the laudatory wave that ushered him into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is giving way to less favorable assessments of his campaign, most importantly in states that will hold early primaries in 2008. He is criticized as too vague on issues.
Although Obama continues to attract large crowds, his penchant for generalities has disappointed some audiences, particularly those most attuned to politics. His lack of specifics is especially apparent when he shares the stage with some of his more experienced rivals.
“He gets some nice publicity out of raising all this money,” said Alan Abramowitz, who teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “He gets people’s attention, reinforces the idea that he’s one of the major contenders. He has a chance to be very competitive for this nomination. But I don’t think it dispels some of the concerns about where he stands on some of the issues.”
At a recent firefighters convention in Washington, D.C., Obama did not measure up to his rivals, at least in the view of some union members, said Harold Schaitberger, president of the influential International Association of Fire Fighters.
Sen. Joseph Biden, of Delaware, spoke movingly of his long-standing personal relationship with local firefighters. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, of Connecticut, drew multiple standing ovations as he recounted legislation he passed to benefit emergency workers. Clinton promised to fight for worker’s compensation and federal money for equipment.
Obama’s remarks were more generic. He praised firefighters and spoke of their desire for better pay. But his address focused largely on the needs of veterans and his opposition to the Iraq war.
“It was a little too solemn and sober,” Schaitberger said. “I don’t think there’s any question that it seemed to fall a little flat for us.”
Obama has gotten specific about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. That has gotten him “a lot of mileage” among Democrats, said Gordon Fischer, a former party chairman in Iowa.
“But it’s not the only issue,” Fischer added. “Sen. Obama is going to have to – I assume the plan is that he will – eventually put forth a plan for universal health care. An education plan. And so on. That time should be coming.”
David Axelrod, the senator’s lead strategist, said Obama would put forth his ideas on a range of issues in due course. Axelrod said Obama will “be making a series of policy speeches this month, next month, and there will be debates.”
Like Clinton and most other major candidates, Obama is raising money for the primary and for the general election. But under federal law, money earmarked for the general election cannot be used to win the primary. Significantly, Obama said that $23.5 million of the $25 million he raised is eligible for use in the primary campaign. Clinton has not disclosed how much of the $26 million she raised is for the primary.