Analysis: Obama's sole focus is the general election

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - It's Barack Obama's party now. He beat the ultimate insider at the insider's game. And he's already turned his full-bore attention to the general election contest against Republican John McCain.

During a weekend in which Hillary Rodham Clinton mounted a likely last hurrah in Puerto Rico and national Democrats resolved the sticky issue of seating Florida and Michigan delegates under a formula favorable to Obama, the Illinois senator took a series of bold steps to signal his focus was riveted on the fall campaign:

• He severed all remaining ties with his Chicago church and politically meddlesome pastors who have preached from its pulpit.

• His campaign announced he would go to the lion's den, the site of this summer's GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., for a rally this Tuesday marking the end of the primary season.

• He stepped up his criticism of McCain, pummeling him on Iraq, Iran and veterans matters.

Former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's top supporter here in South Dakota and leader of the effort to round up superdelegates, on Sunday predicted the floodgates would open this week as remaining superdelegates jump on the Obama bandwagon.

"I think we're going to have a nominee before the end of this week," Daschle said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The primary season ends Tuesday, with contests here and in Montana. Obama was spending Sunday, and all of Saturday, campaigning here.

Obama's complete break with Trinity United Church of Christ will provide a degree of cover for superdelegates poised to endorse him but possibly still uncomfortable about some of his entanglements.

And the same things that make it easier for Obama to cement his victory among superdelegates will help him coax independents to swing his way in the fall.

Obama hasn't yet declared that his nomination is inevitable. But he's on the very edge.

"We are getting very close to the number, the new number, now that Michigan and Florida have been added," he told reporters traveling with him.

"We are getting close to the number that will give us the nomination. And if we've hit that number on Tuesday night we will announce that - and I think even if we don't, this is the end of the primary season," he said. Thus the in-your face decision to hold Tuesday night's primary season wrap-up rally at the Xcel Energy Center, site of the GOP convention beginning Sept. 1.

"I think it's very important for us to pivot and focus on the clear contrast that will exist between Democrats and Republicans in this election," Obama said.

Contributing to the dynamic as Obama heads toward the general election is that he has been painted so poorly by the Clinton campaign - from first portraying him as another manifestation of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to suggesting her rival could be in the same line as other Democratic nominees who lost badly, including George McGovern, the 1972 candidate defeated by President Nixon in a landslide.

Clinton once worked for McGovern's candidacy. McGovern, also of South Dakota, earlier supported Clinton but switched his allegiance to Obama in May and urged her to drop out of the race. He described Obama's lead as "insurmountable" and argued "Democrats need to be gathering in a united way behind him."

Despite continued defiant assertions by Clinton that she would be a better candidate against McCain, particularly in industrial swing states, even some of her most ardent supporters are now subdued, perhaps resigned to the inevitability of an Obama candidacy.

"He would make a good president, and we're not saying he can't get elected," top Clinton strategist Harold Ickes said Sunday.

Clearly, there are some big general election challenges ahead for Obama.

"Obama has to deal with the issue of white working-class reservations about him, highly social conservative attitudes," said Andrew Kohut, president of the independent Pew Research Center.

In many ways, Obama's resignation from the church and repudiation of ministers who made inflammatory racial comments from its pulpit should help with this group.

But more important, said Kohut, Obama needs to strongly reach out to independents. "Right now, they're breaking for Obama. All elections are about how independent voters break."

Plus, Obama is the first one to acknowledge that things happen, and that in a YouTube world, anything can rear up instantly and come close to destroying your political career - like the sermons of two preachers who are among his longtime acquaintances and supporters.

Remarks by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, inflamed racial tensions. These were reinforced by recent comments from the same pulpit by a visiting pastor, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, that raised racial issues and mocked Clinton. Clips of both were circulated extensively on YouTube and shown on television.

"I have to say this was one I didn't see coming. We knew there were going to be some things we didn't see coming. This was one," Obama said. "I didn't anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with e-mails suggesting I was a Muslim, later with the controversy that Trinity generated."


EDITOR'S NOTE - Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.


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