WASHINGTON - The voices are growing louder asking the question: Is Barack Obama all style and little substance?
The freshman Illinois senator began his campaign facing the perception that he lacks the experience to be president, especially compared to rivals with decades of work on foreign and domestic policy. So far, he's done little to challenge it. He's delivered no policy speeches and provided few details about how he would lead the country.
He has focused instead on motivating his impressive following with a call for unity and change in Washington. But along with the attention comes a hunger to hear more about what he's about.
"The Obama campaign has been smart about recognizing that voters don't want to be lost in the valley of policy only," said Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. "But it's a gap that's going to have to be filled as he goes on." Obama has a lot of time to fill in the blanks between now and Election Day, and certainly many other candidates are short on details this early in the race. But they don't have such a barrier to prove they are qualified to be president.
At a union forum Tuesday, Obama sought to answer the questions, arguing that he has experience as a state legislator, community organizer and constitutional law professor. He also cited his work in the Senate on nuclear proliferation.
The differences among the Democratic candidates were on display Saturday in Las Vegas, where the contenders answered questions about health care.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the only other candidate to serve less time in elective office than Obama, described in detail his health care plan to provide insurance for all Americans. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton doesn't have a written plan yet, but no one questions her expertise, since she was the chief proponent of the issue during her husband's presidency.
Daniel Romo, 45, a clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles and a member of the Service Employees International Union that sponsored the forum, left with Clinton and Edwards as his top choices. Obama did not impress him.
"I believe that he needed to know a little more about health care issues and he was just unprepared," Romo said.
David Peter, a child support case worker and member of the SEIU in Las Vegas who was also in the audience, said Obama may have been better off not participating in the forum. Peter is a local organizer for anti-war candidate Dennis Kucinich, but said he was impressed with Clinton's health care plan and disappointed in Obama.
"He wasn't prepared for it," Peter said. "I saw him speak here about a month ago and it was on his issues and just on sort of introducing himself to the people."
Obama was pressed by a union member in the audience who said she went to his Web site to learn more about his health care vision, but didn't find much beyond his commitment to reduce HIV/AIDS and lead poisoning.
"Keep in mind that our campaign now is I think a little over eight weeks old," Obama said. He promised that a detailed plan would show up in the next couple of months, after he has a chance to talk to more people involved in the system to get their input.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the discussion will begin April 3, when Obama plans to talk to New Hampshire hospital workers and other community members at a meeting co-sponsored by the Portsmouth Herald.
"This is bigger than the Washington insiders - he wants to take this out across the country," Burton said.
If Obama were running in a different time, he might get more of a break for lacking specifics. Primary votes were already being cast in the 1984 Democratic primary when Walter Mondale famously ridiculed opponent Gary Hart by asking, "Where's the beef?" Four years ago, no candidate for president had a health care plan this early in the game.
"This race is on overdrive," said Democratic communications adviser Stephanie Cutter. "You can't use previous benchmarks for this." Obama has offered a plan to get troops out of Iraq, beginning with a drawdown in May that would extended through a March 2008 goal of redeploying all combat troops. The plan is unlikely to become reality with Bush in office, but is what Obama says he would do if he were in the Oval Office today.
Obama also has laid out broad goals such as covering the uninsured by the time his first term is over. He has downplayed the importance of the specifics at this stage, saying that it's not a lack of details that are the problem.
"Every four years somebody trots out a white paper, they post it on the Web," Obama said Saturday. "But the question we have to challenge ourselves is do we have the political will and the sense of urgency to actually get it done." --- Associated Press Writer Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential race for The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Ryan Nakashima in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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