Salena Zito

Say it’s the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, the Democrats’ convention is over, Barack Obama is their nominee, and the campaign season has officially begun.

What’s the first thing Obama should do before he hits the trail and campaigns among real Americans?

Get a political makeover.

First, he should shed the Hollywood types, celebrities and anything that even hints of cultural elitism before he takes one step into Middle America.

If he doesn't, he becomes the next Mike Dukakis, nicer looking and a better speaker, but no more in touch with John Deere voters than that guy who looked really awkward when he wore a helmet and drove a tank. Americans want to know their commander in chief looks comfortable in leadership roles, not at Oprah’s really amazing crib.

One of the side effects of such an elongated primary season is the damage done by his opponents, and Hillary Clinton has done a good job of hitting him on style and demographics. Policy wise, Obama and Clinton have never been all that far apart, but he has shown weakness in his personality and his ability to appeal to Middle America.

Yes, he won just about all of the caucus states, but the archaic caucus process largely excludes women, shift workers and the elderly -- a big patch of Democrat voters. He also won open primary contests, but those wins included great gobs of cross-over independent and Republican voters -- once again, not Middle Americans. The states he lost to Clinton cut a diagonal across the country, a geography that is home to Reagan Democrats who typically swing close elections.

Obama needs to reach out to those voters in a very genuine way. He should begin by going forward and establishing that he was raised with and still shares their values.

Next, he needs to leverage the perception of many Americans about Washington, that it works best for the wealthy and the powerful. He needs to reinforce that view and convince voters that if they elect John McCain as president, they’ll get four more years of regular folks being left behind.

There are two big ways Obama can be beat this fall: On one end of the spectrum, he is a cultural elitist who does not share America’s values; on the other end, he is an angry black man, just like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

This primary season has been about Clinton and other opponents taking Obama to one of those two ends and for him to avoid going there.

Obama must operate from the middle of those two places. His narrative must be, “I am just like everyone else in America; I have played by the rules and worked hard.” If he is successful in doing that, he will show that he was able to achieve the American dream -- and that’s what being an American is all about.

Right now, many people really don’t know who Obama is because, until now, he has managed to tack back and forth. But he can’t just tack back and forth for the general election -- he has to drop anchor or he loses.

If he defends nothing else in this campaign, he defends that space between angry black guy and cultural elitist.

If McCain wins the presidency, it will be because his campaign and Republicans took Obama to one of those two places where he can’t go.

Issues will be secondary in the November election to the fundamental character judgment that people will make about Obama.

If Democrats adopt a 50-state campaign strategy -- forcing Republicans to compete in places where they should not have to, causing them to spend too much financial and staff resources -- while Obama fills in his biography, the GOP will be in a whole lot of trouble.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.