Obama General Election Campaign Begins; Latino Journos Point Out Flawed Strategy

Following on a run of strong showings in recent polls and the announcement that it will not use public financing for the general election, the Obama campaign yesterday released its first general election ad and began committing staff and key personnel to new battleground states.

Momentum running high, the campaign hit a speed bump this morning, however, when, in a telephone conference with reporters that the Obama camp intended to use to chastise John McCain for inconsistencies -- including his shifting stance on immigration -- several members of the Latino press chastised the Obama team for the clumsiness of its Hispanic outreach efforts.

The Ad
The general election Obama ad is a true soft sell, part of a recent attempt to more tightly control the candidate's image, marketing him as a true-blue American to voters still muddled on his background and identity, including apparently Democratic party leaders in Tennessee. The ad takes aim at the question that has been hanging over the candidate from the time he announced he was running for president: Will a United States desperate for change embrace the kind of history-making brand makeover represented by African-American "Barack Hussein Obama"? Winning the full-on fifty state five-month Democratic primary was the first part of his answer to that question. The campaign's ratcheted-up attention to image control and this new ad is the beginning of the second part of his answer.

The spot is set to air in what the Obama campaign must now view as the 18 most important battleground states. The new battleground states include the traditionally strong red states Alaska, Georgia, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota. Obama has long argued that he intends to win on an altered map by taking the fight into red country, but spending this early in Georgia, for example, instead of in more bankably blue swing states such as Washington or Oregon, say, suggests he believes he can win, or at least force McCain to take the fight seriously and match the spending.

The ad buy also seems to suggest Obama is betting on voters in relatively cheap media markets -- voters in Alaska and Montana for example -- who have voted for Bush in the last two elections but with whom he does not register the kind of negatives he does in some of the states of the Southeast and Appalachia, for example.

The Call
In the press release notifying reporters of the conference call, Obama spokesman Bill Burton humorously wrote that there was "required reading" and included the text of a post by Jonathan Martin of Politico.com about a closed-door meeting Wednesday between McCain and Chicagoland Latino leaders about immigration reform that seemed to contradict the position McCain projected when he spoke with conservative immigration advocates. (Apparently McCain didn't expect one of the invited Latina leaders to also be a conservative, anti-immigration member of the Minutemen.) And, while reporters were waiting a quarter-hour after the scheduled start time for the call to begin, a second Obama press release hit reporters' inboxes, this time quoting another news article on McCain's inconsistent stances on immigration, this one by ABC News' Jake Tapper (who incidentally was one of the reporters on hold). A few minutes later - roughly enough time for reporters to digest the newest "required reading" - the conference began.

Late in the Q&A by reporters that followed the Obama spokesmen's presentation (Theme of the Day: it's been "pander week on the double talk express"), several reporters called the Obama team on the carpet for what they saw as the campaign's tin ear toward the Latino community. McCain's alleged pandering to Latinos was suddenly not the issues. Liza Sabater of culturekitchen.com and The Daily Gotham put Obama Communications Director Robert Gibbs on the spot, asking a meandering question that pointed out several weaknesses in the campaign's Latino outreach efforts, ranging from failing to reach activists who are willing to carry Obama's message to that community, to misunderstanding the diversity of "Hispanics," to focusing too much on immigration as the core Latino issue:

Earlier in the call, Gibbs had demurred to a question asking for details of the campaign appearance Obama and Hillary Clinton will be making next Friday, saying he didn't know yet exactly when and where they would be speaking. Marisa Treviño of Latina Lista, who wrote an interesting post on this issue yesterday, carried the theme of that post into today's call, turning what seemed like an innocuous "I dunno" into a referendum on Obama's commitment to Latinos (which Gibbs fielded pretty well):

A few minutes later, Pilar Marrero , who writes for the VotoLatino ("Latino Vote") blog of the Spanish language newspaper La Opinion, noted that Latino journalists have had difficulty reaching campaign spokespeople (note to Ms. Marrero: it's not just Latinos who have that problem, with both campaigns!), and asked who the campaign's strategists to the Latino community would be:

Interestingly, neither Marrero in her question nor Gibbs in his answer mentioned one of the campaign's newest and highest-profile hires, Patty Solis Doyle - interesting, because many people have identified her hiring as being, in part, a gesture to the Latino community. But Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer remedied that omission in the very next question, asking specifically whether Solis Doyle would play a Latino outreach role. Gibbs equivocated - she might do some - but indicated that Solis Doyle would be focused almost exclusively on her specific job as Chief of Staff to Obama's as-yet-unnamed running mate:

(Note: Horowitz's post about this exchange was given a headline emphasizing that Solis Doyle will help court Latinos, but his actual post gives the fuller picture.)

Finally, Kety Esquivel of The Sanctuary and CrossLeft.org asked whether the campaign was putting its money where its mouth is when it came to hiring dedicated staff, buying media time, etc. for Latino outreach; in response, Gibbs wisely suggested she and any other reporters interested in Latino-specific topics call the campaign's coordinator for Spanish-language media, Vince Casillas - who may suddenly have a much higher profile in the campaign:

To be fair, both campaigns have work to do in reaching Spanish-speaking and Hispanic-heritage communities, which are diverse both in composition (consider the differences between New York's Puerto Riqueno, Florida's Cubano, and Arizona's Mexicano communities, for instance) and in issues of concern (which range from immigration, to the status of Puerto Rico, to citizenship for non-citizen members of the Armed Forces, to "the economy, stupid"). But the Obama campaign was given a swift, and unexpected, kick in the rear today. The question is, will it react defensively, or will it gratefully accept the message and undertake some (apparently much needed) reforms?

(This story was written and reported with John Tomasic.)