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Obama tries to convert promise to support in Iowa

MUSCATINE, Iowa (Reuters) - Time is running short for Democrat Barack Obama, who has struggled to turn the early promise and enthusiasm of his 2008 presidential campaign into support.

Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a campaign stop in Knoxville, Iowa November 8, 2007. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

The first-term U.S. senator from Illinois draws big crowds and raises big money, but lags well behind front-runner Hillary Clinton in national polls as he heads into a possibly decisive three-way struggle in Iowa with Clinton and John Edwards.

In Iowa, which launches the state-by-state battle for the Democratic nomination, polls show the race tightening into essentially a dead heat with his two top rivals less than two months before the January 3 contest.

The battle is a must-win for Obama if he hopes to overtake Clinton and reshape a race he entered earlier this year in a blaze of excitement, publicity and record-setting fund raising.

“He’s an attractive, smart candidate, but I don’t think people have figured out yet why they should vote for him,” said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political analyst.

Obama, who hopes to become the first black elected to the White House in the November 2008 election, has struggled to balance his promise of a less confrontational brand of politics with the need to draw sharp contrasts with Clinton.

His pledge to close the partisan divide has not always resonated with Democrats angered by President George W. Bush.

“The idea that he would be the candidate to bring both sides together -- I’m not sure that is what Democrats are looking for this year,” Squire said. “They are looking for someone with a harder edge.”

Obama supporters laud his direct style, his promises to change Washington and his early opposition to the war in Iraq -- a position he frequently cites to draw contrasts with Edwards and especially Clinton, who both voted in the Senate in 2002 to authorize the war.


“Senator Obama is the only candidate who can bring the sort of change we need. He seems very genuine to me,” said Sally Meisinger, a retired savings and loan employee who attended an Obama rally in Muscatine, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River.

But some Iowa voters still question whether he is the right person to lead Democrats in 2008. “I like him, I like his ideas, but I’m not sure he has enough experience,” said Gordon Kellenberger, a landscape painter from Amana.

With less than two months left until the Iowa contest, Obama is spending more time in the state and building a vast grass-roots organization featuring more than 30 field offices that has impressed local Democrats.

He spent five days on a bus tour this week, capped by a state party dinner in Des Moines on Saturday with all of the candidates.

His rallies try to sign up new supporters and familiarize them with Iowa’s unusual caucus system, which requires participants to leave home on a cold winter night and gather with neighbors to publicly declare support for a candidate.

“We recognize the importance of Iowa -- we’re going to be spending the bulk of our time here and in New Hampshire in the last two months,” said campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs. New Hampshire is expected to hold the second state contest.

At campaign stops, Obama highlights criticism of Clinton’s vote to designate an Iranian military unit a terrorist group and says he will bring a fresh and more open approach to diplomacy.

He also stresses his plans to ease the economic burden for middle-class families, strengthen retirement security and close the disparity in income in the United States.

His supporters say they believe his promises. In a dig at Clinton, a New York senator, and her efforts to avoid being pinned down, one Obama backer said he had the ability to talk directly about issues.

“When you ask a question he actually answers it,” said Cindy Lohrman, a homemaker in Muscatine.

Dr. Tim Murphy, a 58-year-old psychologist from Bettendorf, said he was not worried about Obama being inexperienced.

“I don’t care about his lack of experience in politics. His experience is as a consensus builder. He’s a really good critical thinker,” he said.

(Editing by Lori Santos and Todd Eastham)

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