The crowd at Sen. Clinton’s rally in Maysville, Kentucky.
Photo: Barbara Kinney

On the surface, the Democrats’ presidential campaigning this past week in Kentucky has mirrored the pre-primary tactics of a week before, in neighboring West Virginia. And today’s outcome indeed may repeat last Tuesday’s primary ““ most pollsters have predicted another landslide win for Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama.

Even if Clinton does win big, however, the Senator from Illinois (another Kentucky neighbor) has shifted his strategy here. And in doing so, he may be establishing an “Obama presence” to build on in the months ahead.

Clinton’s effort in the Bluegrass State has been eerily similar to her campaign in West Virginia coal country. The Clinton camp bounced from city to town in Kentucky, making sure it not only targeted voters in densely populated Louisville and Lexington but also held rallies in smaller communities like Prestonsburg. The approach was foremost an appeal to the white, rural, blue-collar workers that secured Clinton’s victory in West Virginia.

Fuel prices, taxes, the job market, and health care have been the most important issues in Kentucky this primary season. At large gatherings, small meetings, and even a rally at Maker’s Mark Distillery, Sen. Clinton appeared to excite voters by addressing these concerns. Her speeches paralleled those made in West Virginia. They outlined her plans for health care for working class Americans along with plans to boost the economy in areas where jobs are hard to find and families’ incomes are declining. In other words, Clinton’s campaign hadn’t budged – but why should it have, after such a convincing win (67% over Obama’s 26% of the vote) in West Virginia?

A recent telephone survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports showed Clinton leading Obama 56% to 31% in Kentucky, a big deficit for the Illinois senator. Without a West Virginia win to coast on, Obama’s campaign in Kentucky therefore modified its approach — more so than voters may have realized.

It is true that Obama made only one campaign appearance in Kentucky, in Louisville, a metropolitan and racially diverse area of the state, just as he had done in Charleston, West Virginia. But the message and scale of Obama’s city rally in Kentucky were different. In Charleston, Obama really addressed one specific issue, veteran’s rights, whereas the speech in Louisville was much broader ““ sounding more like an appeal to voters than support for a cause.

Obama cross pamphlet

Obama’s message, Kentucky organization ““- and the turnout of supporters — were different too. The Louisville rally drew a crowd of 8,000, versus the 1,500 in West Virginia. Instead of attacking his foe for the nomination, he spoke about changing President Bush’s foreign and economic policies. Obama implored the Louisville crowd to “understand that John McCain is running for George Bush’s third term.” This doesn’t sound like a man looking for a primary win; instead Obama hinted he would lose the Kentucky primary but assumes he will receive the Democratic nomination and will need Kentuckians’ votes come November.

The most flagrant evidence of a new approach has been the “cross flyers” that the Obama campaign distributed throughout Kentucky. The leaflet (at right) depicts Obama standing at a pulpit with a large cross illuminated in the background, and the words “FAITH. HOPE. CHANGE. BARACK OBAMA FOR PRESIDENT” hovering above. Unlike in previous contests, even as recent as West Virginia’s, the Obama campaign is using religion to appeal to voters, hoping this “Committed Christian” pamphlet will help woo evangelical voters. Again, the tactic seems less aimed at winning the Kentucky primary than easing some Christian voters’ apprehensiveness, with an eye toward the general election in the fall. Should Obama be able to capture even some evangelical support, Kentucky, which has voted Republican in five of the last seven presidential elections, might no longer be a red state.

Most voters may not know that Barack Obama has established sixteen campaign offices in Kentucky to spread his message; Clinton only has five. The mass organization and new tactics leave analysts and voters alike wondering why there’s been so much so much effort when the state is clearly pro-Clinton.

While Clinton is likely to find success in Kentucky today with consistency, Obama, like a good marathoner, is changing his pace for the long run.

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