WASHINGTON — Barack Obama may be on his way to the Democratic presidential nomination, but if so, he's walking rather than racing across the finish line in a lukewarm close that could signal challenges heading into the general election.
Among the warning signs: His loss of Kentucky Tuesday by 249,000 votes was the most lopsided loss by either candidate in more than three months. He's lost ground in the nationwide popular vote steadily since March 1, losing a net of a half-million votes to rival Hillary Clinton. He faces another possible big loss next week in Puerto Rico. And early looks at key battleground states such as North Carolina and Ohio suggest troubles with whites, Hispanics and the working class.
Some of Obama's slow gait may be by design. Obama aides say he's treading carefully now, willing to cede some states and no longer attacking Clinton because he's confident he'll win the nomination and doesn't want to alienate her or her supporters.
And none of his weaknesses mean he cannot go on to win the presidency. Bill Clinton in 1992 faced a late challenge from Jerry Brown but still went on to win the White House. Jimmy Carter in 1976 also faced late challenges to his nomination — remember the Anybody But Carter campaign? — and still went on to win in November. The impact of a loss in Puerto Rico is muffled by the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in the November presidential election.
Yet Obama clearly is nearing the end of the longest primary campaign in history still working to rally whole slices of his party, particularly working-class whites. He's having difficulty in the primaries locking down fall battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and has been unable to show he can win in Republican-leaning states such as Kentucky and Indiana as he did earlier in places such as Idaho and South Carolina.
"Momentum has disappeared," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "Except for that one stretch between February and March where Obama won 11 in a row, momentum has really taken a backseat to the demographics ...
"I think there's concern ... that his coalition has big holes in it. He hasn't consolidated the Democratic Party and he isn't any closer than he was after, say, Super Tuesday. That voter bloc, the white working-class voters, they are in places that Democrats need to win. Without Pennsylvania, without Ohio, the electoral-college map gets difficult for Obama ... There are general election concerns there."
To be sure, Obama has run a smart campaign, winning more delegates than Clinton.
Obama aides on Wednesday also pointed to a new Reuters/Zogby poll showing Obama gaining in a fall match-up with McCain among several blocs of voters that have backed Clinton, including Roman Catholics, Jews, union households and voters making less than $35,000 a year.
But in key battlegrounds, polls suggest Obama faces a tougher challenge than Clinton might.
In Ohio, for example, a state Democrats desperately want to take away from the Republicans, Obama is neck and neck with McCain, trailing the Republican by an average of one point in several recent surveys tallied by www.realclearpolitics.com.
That's a gain for Obama from earlier polls, but he still trails McCain among the key middle-income group of people making between $20,000 and $75,000 a year, according to a Rasmussen poll. And Obama draws just 65 percent of Democrats, while McCain takes 77 percent of Republicans.
In North Carolina, a Republican state that Obama says he can take, he trails McCain by an average of 6 points, three times as big a deficit as Clinton faces.
Obama holds his usual overwhelming support from African Americans in North Carolina, leading McCain by 81 points in a recent SurveyUSA poll. But the black vote that dominated the Democratic primary there two weeks ago is diluted in the general election. And Obama trails McCain among whites by 32 points. He also trails among Hispanics by 31 points and men by 14 points.
Yet in Colorado, another Republican state where Obama hopes to make inroads, he does lead McCain in recent polls. He leads among independents by 21 points, and holds the same percentage of Democrats as McCain does.
One veteran Democratic strategist who's neutral in the campaign thinks Obama's challenges now are overrated as harbingers of problems in the fall.
Bill Carrick noted that both Bill Clinton in 1992 and John Kerry in 2004 did poorly in the primaries among younger voters. But when it came to the general election, Carrick said, both did much better with that voting bloc.