ELKO, Nev. Worried Democrats want Barack Obama to get tougher and show more passion. Why is he so calm, supporters ask, so close to an election that looks so tight?
"Just keep steady," Obama tells the nervous Nellies. "I'm skinny but I'm tough. I'm from Chicago."
Obama hears the concern, from senior Democrats and big-money contributors to columnists and supporters along the rope lines at campaign events. He heard it again as he stood in an hour-long receiving line in Hollywood to pose for pictures with donors who paid $28,500 to be with him Tuesday night.
"I know that a lot of you, just in conversations while we were in the photo lines, had all sorts of suggestions," Obama said. "And a lot of people have gotten nervous and concerned. 'Why is this as close as it is? And what's going on?"'
"We always knew this was going to be hard, and this is a leap for the American people," Obama said. "And we're running against somebody who has a formidable biography, a compelling biography. He's a genuine American hero, somebody who served in uniform and suffered through some things that very few of us can imagine."
Urging Democrats not to worry about his cool demeanor, Obama said, "The reason I'm calm is I have confidence in the American people."
But many of his supporters are upset that polls show the race is close, even with Obama running against a Republican who used to brag that he voted 90 percent of the time with the unpopular President Bush. The economy is teetering, and the country is still at war, but seven weeks from Election Day the race is far from the slam-dunk that Democrats dreamed about.
And there does seem to be more bite in Obama's daily remarks.
With unemployment rising and big financial firms failing, Obama and Republican rival John McCain both have pushed the economy to the front of their speeches. "The entire campaign has shifted," Obama said.
He bought a two-minute television commercial to speak to voters on Wednesday, attempting to empathize with people struggling to pay for groceries, gas and health insurance. Taped in a living-room-like setting, Obama spoke directly to the camera and did not mention McCain.
But this week, Obama has noticeably toughened his speeches and sharpened his criticism of his rival. He still comes off as cool and unflappable, but there is more heat in his rhetoric.
On Wednesday in Elko, a conservative, rural mining community, Obama mocked McCain's response to Wall Street's meltdown.
"Yesterday, John McCain actually said that if he's president he'll take on and I quote 'the old boys network in Washington.' I'm not making this up," Obama said. "This is somebody who's been in Congress for 26 years, who put seven of the most powerful Washington lobbyists in charge of his campaign.
"And now he tells us that he's the one who's going to take on the old boys network," Obama said. "The old boys network. In the McCain campaign that's called a staff meeting. Come on."
McCain generally has been more cutting in his own remarks, and he got more personal on Tuesday.
"Let's have some straight talk: Sen. Obama is not interested in the politics of hope; he's interested in his future. That's why he's hurling insults," McCain said as he and running mate Sarah Palin addressed a rally in Ohio.
Obama's turn again in Elko: "Unlike Sen. McCain, it didn't take a crisis on Wall Street for me to understand that folks are hurting out on Main Street."
Some in Obama's audience on Wednesday said they were perfectly satisfied with his tone.
"I think he needs to keep doing exactly what he's doing, which is speak softly, show it through," said Paul Barnhart, a retired real estate appraiser in the Elko crowd of about 1,500 people. "I think most Americans are pretty fed up and sick and tired of the bickering and the battling back and forth. I am."
Holly Black, a special education teacher in Elko, agreed. "I don't believe in the trash-talking. I believe he is aggressive."
As for the tight campaign, David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said, "We never anticipated anything but a close race and now (after the political conventions) it's settled back to where we expected it to be, which is a very close, competitive race."
"We have a lot of targets of opportunity in states that were Bush states in 2004," Axelrod said. "We expect to battle right to the end." He also said Obama has started preparing for next week's first of the three campaign debates that will help Americans decide.
"He's been doing a lot of reading," Axelrod said.