Hillary Clinton's critical choice
Attacking Obama could push youth away from politics.
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Technology is another liability. In old-style negative campaigning you could localize your stabs by, for example, running attack ads in one district or sending out smearing mailers to certain groups. But with the advent of blogs and YouTube, all politics is global. Any anti-Obama ad will be seen by the whole country. What might work in rural South Carolina might be embarrassing when watched online in Santa Barbara, Calif.Skip to next paragraph
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And, of course, when you sling mud there is a backlash. Clinton has worked hard to make herself appear genial yet serious in more recent speeches and in ads. An attack-dog stance will hardly raise her own approval rating for the general election.
But do the Clintons and their allies have any choice? Each additional state that Obama can win will dampen questions about his own electability. Does Clinton want to fight him in every state or win the nomination early?
While the Clinton campaign is concerned about the current election, bigger questions should be asked. In going negative with Obama, something else is at stake: the next generation of Democrats.
Entrance polling, anecdotal evidence from voter interviews, and simple observation of rallies suggest that many Obama voters are truly excited about him. Of the record 239,000 Democratic voters in the Iowa caucus, 22 percent were under 30 years old – also a first. Even more remarkable, among this group, Obama won 57 percent of the vote; Edwards, 14 percent; and Clinton just 11 percent.
The Clinton-Obama demographic divide is a generation gap we have not seen in Democratic Party presidential politics for, well, generations. Howard Dean, the "youth candidate" of 2004, scored just 25 percent of the under-30 vote in Iowa, while John Kerry got 35 percent.
In short, Obama is a "first love" for many young, potential new Democrats, and they are the future of the party. What would happen if they walked away in disgust from their initial engagement with politics because things turned bitter and dirty?
Right now there is a struggle in the Clinton campaign about what New Hampshire meant. Her choice, to go positive or negative, or both, may determine the fate of her campaign. But the fallout could also affect the makeup of the Democratic party for a generation to come.