Obama struggles to stay above fray
In striking back harder against Clinton, is he undercutting his message?
Barack Obama has cast himself as the candidate of hope, an idealist with no patience for mudslinging and division.Skip to next paragraph
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So as Hillary Rodham Clinton throws harder punches – a strategy that analysts say helped her win the Ohio and Texas primaries a week ago – how hard can he hit back without undercutting his message of uplift?
The question has come into high relief over the past week as Senator Obama – who is expected to win the Mississippi primary Tuesday but faces a stiff challenge next month in Pennsylvania – pushes back against a fusillade of criticism from the Clinton campaign.
Since his losses March 4 in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, Obama and his aides have questioned Senator Clinton's claim that she has been "fully vetted," called for her to release her White House papers and latest tax returns, and suggested that her assertions of overseas policy experience were exaggerated.
"What exactly is this foreign experience that she's claiming?" Obama told reporters on his campaign plane last week, alluding to Clinton's "red phone" TV ad questioning Obama's readiness for an international crisis. "I know she talks about visiting 80 countries. It is not clear, was she negotiating treaties or agreements, or was she handling crises during this period of time? My sense is the answer's no."
A campaign surrogate, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, meanwhile, took aim at Bill Clinton's failure to disclose contributors to his presidential library. "Are there favors attached to $500,000 or $1 million contributions?" he said on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" Wednesday. "And what do I mean by favors? I mean, pardons that are granted, investigations that are squelched, contracts that are awarded, regulations that are delayed."
Obama has promised voters a "different kind of politics," and before the results were in last Tuesday he insisted his campaign would not change course. "I have said consistently that we do things differently," he told reporters. "It's worked for us so far. And I'm not going to do things that I'm not comfortable in doing."
That night, however, his chief strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters that the campaign would not leave Clinton's salvos unanswered. "If she wants to make issues like ethics and disclosure and law firms and real estate deals and all that stuff issues, as I've said before, I don't know why they'd want to go there, but I guess that's where they'll take the race," Mr. Axelrod said. "If Senator Clinton wants to take the debate to various places, we'll join that debate."
That will require a tango, analysts say. Respond too harshly, they say, and he jeopardizes a chief part of his appeal. Don't respond at all, and the charges develop the patina of truth. Sen. John Kerry learned the latter lesson well four years ago with his slow response to the "Swift Boat" ads questioning his military service.
"Obama's got a real dilemma," says J. Michael Hogan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in University Park who studies presidential campaign rhetoric. "If he doesn't respond to the criticisms and the attacks, then they go unanswered. But if he does, he betrays his own promise to change the tone of campaign discourse."
That may be partly what the Clinton campaign is aiming for with a biting series of attacks on his experience, candor, and character, says Dr. Hogan. "What they're trying to do is tempt him to abandon his high horse and say something that will reflect badly on him in terms of that commitment to be positive."