Kirk Caraway: The Barack Obama-Howard Dean 50-state gambit - will it pay off?

Even if you take away all the hoopla over the success of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, 2008 was already setting up to be an historic election.

These events are rare. 1932. 1968. 1980. These are elections that follow economic and social turmoil, when the country is in the mood for a change.

2008 could eclipse all of those past milestones, due to a combination of the overwhelming unpopularity of the current administration, the public's sense that the country is on the wrong track, and just plain dumb luck for the Democrats.

But perhaps it's the joining together of the idealistic notions of the Obama Campaign and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean that could make this either an historic victory for Democrats, or a catastrophic collapse that would save the faltering GOP.

What many people missed about the primary battle between Obama and Clinton is that it was a continuation of the inter-party war between the defensive-minded party regulars and the more idealistic newcomers headed up by Chairman Dean.

After watching the good ol' boys blow two straight elections with exceedingly poor campaigns and lackluster candidates, there were enough angry Democrats at the state level to demand a change, and they picked Dean to lead the party in 2005. The former Vermont governor had a radical idea that the Democrats should try to compete in all 50 states, instead of concentrating all of their resources in the battleground areas. Many of the old leaders scoffed at the idea, and said Dean was wasting the party's money by pouring it into places like Mississippi and Kansas.

But then Democrats started winning races in Mississippi and Kansas, and in other red states like Virginia, Montana and Colorado. They took back control of Congress in 2006, and they have picked up even more seats in special elections since then, in strong Republican districts.

Dean's strategy was long-term, to build the party from the roots up, so it could compete in places where it hadn't before. He was playing offense, instead of the defensive strategy that had been a loser for so long.

Obama adopted Dean's offensive strategy for his campaign. The Illinois senator is approaching this election like the leader of a political movement, not just someone who wants to be president.

Like Dean, Obama's looking far beyond just beating John McCain. He wants a strong Democratic Congress that will push through the kinds of changes he's campaigning on. It's Karl Rove's dream of a permanent majority, in reverse.

By the luck of the draw, Republicans are left defending about twice as many Senate seats as Democrats this year. There are 11 seats that Democrats have a realistic chance to flip to their side, while the Republicans maybe have a chance at one seat. If the Democrats win 10, then the GOP will lose the ability to filibuster, their favorite political tool these days. There would be no stopping the Obama agenda after that.

But Obama is not just looking at the makeup of Congress today, but far into the future as well.

Take Texas for example. Obama's chances of winning this state are slim. But his campaign is aiming to put 10,000 volunteers into that state, hoping to drum up support for all Democrats in all races. If Obama's helpers can give Democrats control over more state legislatures, they will be in a position to help redraw congressional districts after the 2010 Census, and build a stronger party for the future.

There is a substantial danger in the Obama-Dean strategy. If some of the battleground states slip away because Democratic forces are spread too thin, it could hand the election to McCain, and Dean and Obama would be relegated to the Dem's doghouse for losers.

Looking at the state-by-state poll number averages on, Obama already has the lead in enough states to win comfortably. In the old days, a Democratic nominee in that situation would just concentrate his money in those states and coast to victory.

Instead, Obama is taking a huge chance, a gamble that he can not only win the White House, but a mandate for the kind of change we haven't seen since the New Deal. That kind of audacity will either land his picture on currency, or in the annals of history's biggest political busts.

Only time will tell.

- Kirk Caraway of Carson City writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at


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