Going into Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate, the big question was whether Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would get tough on the front-runner for his party's nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
The reviews are in: He did not.
Moderator Tim Russert practically invited the freshman senator to go after the former first lady, asking Mr. Obama if he is referring to "the Bushes, the Clintons, or both" when he goes around the country saying "it's time to turn the page."
Obama left Mrs. Clinton (and her husband, the former president) out of the answer. Instead, he talked generically about how it's time to end "divisive politics" and work together to solve problems. Score another point for Obama in the Mr. Nice Guy column.
But is that smart politics for the 2008 presidential cycle? Polls suggest it may not be. While historically, Americans have usually preferred the more likable candidate for president, this time around, the coin of the realm appears to be toughness.
In a recent Pew Research Center poll, Democrats overwhelmingly associated Clinton with the word "tough;" she beat Obama on that quality 67 percent to 14 percent. On most other qualities tested – "energetic," "down-to-earth," "even-tempered," "optimistic," "honest," and "friendly" – Obama came out on top.
On the Republican side, voters displayed less consensus on which of their candidates is toughest. The front-runner in national polls, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, came out on top with a 39 percent plurality of GOP voters. The next "toughest" Republican candidate was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with 26 percent. Former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee came in third, at 18 percent.
But there's no doubt that, in a time of war, voters weight candidates' personal qualities differently, analysts say.
"Toughness counts for more than likability," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "And that's one advantage for Hillary Clinton. If you're a Democrat, even if you don't like her, you acknowledge that she's tough – kind of like a liberal Democratic doppelganger of [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher."
Another aspect of "tough" that may also be playing into voters' calculations is how the candidates do battle against one another – and, in particular, how the two major-party nominees will wage their general-election campaigns next year.
In a recent poll by Diageo/Hotline, GOP voters were asked which traits best described Mr. Giuliani. After the top answer (25 percent) – "will protect the US against terrorist attacks" – the next was "has the best chance of beating the Democratic nominee" (13 percent).
On the Democratic side, there is no doubt that Clinton's experience in being on the winning side in two hard-fought presidential campaigns – and having her husband at her side now as her top strategist for her own campaign – works to her advantage. While voters tell pollsters they want "change" and the "new kind of politics" that Obama is promising, when push comes to shove, so far they are going with nominees who project a sense that they will do whatever it takes to win in November 2008.
"If the price of winning the White House was walking over their grandmothers to get there, Clinton and Giuliani wouldn't even bother to remove their shoes," writes political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Of course, national polls at this stage in the game can be misleading. Voters who do not live in early-primary states may not have given a lot of thought to their party's nomination race, and so, analysts warn, the shape of the race should change dramatically when the earliest contests begin. For example, in the Iowa caucuses, home of the first nominating contest, polls of Democrats show a close race among Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. A Clinton loss there could knock her off her national front-runner status in a flash.
In attributing personal qualities to candidates, some voters may not have thought enough about the particulars of the contestants to give a fully reasoned response. "The default position for some voters in both parties is to attribute the positive qualities to the front-runner, in the absence of any other compelling information or evidence," says Carroll Doherty, Pew's director of survey research.
Still, if you're former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and only 2 percent of GOP voters give your name when the word "tough" is mentioned – as the Pew survey found – that's a problem. His campaign knows it is, but has yet to come up with a solution. Governor Romney can talk tough – such as calling for the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be doubled, as he did in a debate – but his smooth delivery and image takes away from the message.
"Romney has the kinder, gentler, blander demeanor," says Todd Gitlin, author of "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent," which analyzes what the parties are looking for in their new leaders. But, he adds, Romney "certainly has the same aspiration" – to come across as tough. Romney, though still far down in the national polls, is topping early-primary state polls and is expected to post strong fundraising numbers for the third straight quarter, and therefore remains a strong contender for the nomination.