Sen. Barack Obama tries to flesh out his record with an election-fraud bill

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) yesterday added election fraud to the spectrum of weighty issues he has covered since informally launching his presidential bid, further fleshing out a legislative record that could be an inviting target in the intensifying 2008 campaign.

Obama sought to stay focused on his bill criminalizing voter suppression and deceptive electoral tactics, his third momentum-building effort in two weeks, even as the Republican National Committee drove a wedge through the Democratic field by circulating critical comments made by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) about his fellow White House hopefuls.

“I don’t spend too much time worrying about what folks talk about during campaign season,” Obama said yesterday.

Yet he has embraced several politically charged debates this winter, signaling his readiness to compete in the media glare of the primary trail and his ability to project presidential gravitas while displaying Democratic bona fides.

Yesterday’s voter-deception bill, which would allow injunctive relief for individuals targeted by fraudulent flyers and automated phone calls during the run-up to Election Day, earned plaudits from civil-rights groups and the co-sponsorship of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Democratic Caucus’s No. 3 and a backer of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2008.

Obama acknowledged the greater megaphone he commands as a presidential contender, observing that the Democrats’ new majority status also allows him to expand his legislative reach with some confidence of floor time and success. 

Having openly declared for 2008 makes “you guys [in the media] pay more attention to what we’re dropping,” Obama said, “but it’s gratifying that we can pay attention to critical issues.”

Obama weighed in late Tuesday with an Iraq measure that would require a start to troop withdrawal by May and an end to the process by March 31, 2008 — mere weeks after the presidential showdown of the “Super Tuesday” primaries. That hard date for drawdown goes a step beyond Clinton’s rhetoric on the war, while matching one of her goals by allowing for troops to move out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.

Obama’s Iraq bill is an outgrowth of his November speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where he called for a timetable to begin pulling out troops but stressed that flexibility to suspend redeployment would be crucial if Congress and the Iraqi government certified that a U.S. presence was still needed. Obama’s opening for postponement of troop withdrawal did not stop liberal stalwarts from hailing his bill yesterday.

“His proposal to set a deadline for withdrawal is an important distinction from other proposals that include an open-ended commitment,” Tom Mattzie, political director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement. “Without a deadline, it is hard to get out of Iraq.”

Civil-rights lions at the People for the American Way (PFAW), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) also marshaled behind Obama’s election-fraud remedy. PFAW will partner with Obama for a voter-suppression event next week, and LCCR executive director Barbara Anwine was glowing in her praise for Obama.

“There are a thousand issues he could highlight, but to really hammer this one will make it at the forefront of the presidential debate,” said Anwine, whose passionate call for an end to intimidation tactics that target minority voters earned an “amen” from Obama.

One source close to the Obama campaign said the senator’s full plate, topped by Senate testimony Tuesday on global warming, shows voters what is important to him.

“There’s an old saying in Chicago politics: Good policy is good politics,” the source said.

House Democrats have responded in their own way to Obama’s candidacy. Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) has agreed to serve as a House liaison for Obama, said Brian Herman, her communications director. That role could cover formal events, such as fundraisers and meetings with House Democrats, or focus largely on private outreach.

Another natural House emissary is Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a close ally of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) who applauded Obama’s exploratory rollout Jan. 16 with a promise to join the effort. Both Bean and Davis are leaders in the centrist wing of their caucus, which one House Democratic aide said would be invaluable to Obama.

“[Bean] has a great deal of credibility when it comes to certain issues, in terms of knowing what will appeal to the center, and independents in particular,” the aide said.

An Illinoisan with strong liberal credentials, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D), said she is planning a social event in the coming days to introduce Obama to House Democrats whom he may not yet know personally. Schakowsky, who has a large in-state grassroots network, said she wants the gathering to be free of pressure to make a formal endorsement.

“The highlight of the invitation is going to be, ‘Meet Barack Obama,’” said Schakowsky, who will co-host with Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), another longtime Obama supporter. “There may be some people from New York, for example, who have commitments but who would like to get a sense of what he is about.”

Obama’s busy week, which began with a speech last Thursday calling for universal healthcare by 2012, ended yesterday with a phone call from Biden apologizing if his comments, printed in the New York Observer, came across as disparaging.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden was quoted as saying. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Obama replied to Biden that there was no need for contrition, Biden told reporters on an afternoon conference call.

Yet Obama will have to determine eventually whether to directly or subtly parry skeptical questions about his legislative experience, such as Biden’s judging him “a one-term” in the Observer this week or Dick Morris’s false charge in December that Obama “has never introduced a bill.”

Obama served as lead sponsor on 66 bills and 86 amendments during the 109th Congress, according to the Library of Congress.