The Battle against Obama Clintons Play Bad Cop, Worse Cop

No more Ms. Nice Gal. After Obama's surprising success on the campaign trail, the Clinton team is pulling out all the stops. Hillary's most important advocate, her husband Bill, has jumped into the fray. But some critics say his behavior is unfitting for an ex-president.

By and Gabor Steingart

Hillary Clinton has taken off the gloves and switched to attack mode in her campaign against Democratic opponent Barack Obama, which has turned into a duel.

Hillary Clinton has taken off the gloves and switched to attack mode in her campaign against Democratic opponent Barack Obama, which has turned into a duel.

You don't even have to hear what they're saying. Simply watching the two top Democratic presidential contenders standing on the same stage, with the audio turned off, reveals that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton come from different worlds.

Obama was as elegant as ever in last Monday's major television debate in South Carolina. His gestures, as he painted pictures in the air, were both powerful and subtle. If one were to compare Obama's campaign style -- with its elegance and aesthetic beauty -- with a competitive sport it would have to be beach volleyball.

Clinton stood next to him, waiting to jump into action. Her body tense, her feet firmly planted on the ground, she kept her eyes trained unwaveringly on her opponent. Her campaign style, more recently, is like American football, which thrives on action, attack and relentless head-butting contact. Football is a rough sport in which players try to gain as much ground as possible from their opponents.

Obama talked about hope and promised change, tossing his comments high into the air like beautiful passes. He also said that he felt poorly treated by Hillary's husband Bill in this campaign.

Clinton's eyelids flickered. It was her cue to launch into attack mode.

Initiate Attack Sequence

Of course the future of the nation is at stake during an election campaign, Clinton began. But it's also important, she continued, to take a look at your opponent's career and ask questions like: What has he said? And what has he done?

For Clinton, the answers to these questions raise doubts about her opponent. Obama gave a great speech opposing the Iraq War, an impressive speech, in fact, but he wasn't even a senator at the time, she argued. And then what happened, Clinton asked rhetorically? Only a year later, when most Americans were strongly in favor of the war and stood behind their president, the speech suddenly disappeared from Obama's Web site. A year after that, when Obama was already a senator in Washington, he raised his hand when it came to vote for funding the war "again and again and again," Clinton said. This, she concluded, is what we have to do in this campaign: check for consistency between a candidate's words and deeds.

Her comments were met with applause and whistles from the audience. "Hold on," the moderator said. "We're just warming up," Clinton, clearly relishing the attack, replied.

A New Set of (Dirty) Rules

Obama tried to put himself back into play, complaining about Bill Clinton's role in his wife's campaign. "He's not here, I am," she said, using the opportunity to launch into another attack. She said that Obama had recently praised former President Ronald Reagan's Republican administration for its ideas. She, on the other hand, had always fought against these ideas, "at a time, by the way, when you were working for a slumlord in Chicago." The man she was talking about goes on trial in February on charges of fraud. He was one of Obama's supporters, Clinton added triumphantly.

For a moment, the tall, elegant Obama was struck speechless by her below-the-belt tactics, as if he had just realized that he and Clinton were not playing by the same game rules. The audience booed, and millions of TV viewers experienced what campaign strategists dispassionately call character assassination. It's the kind of maneuver Clinton, still the frontrunner, has recently added to her campaign arsenal.

Taking the Gloves Off

It was weeks ago, on the night of Jan. 3, just after Clinton had unexpectedly lost the first contest in the primary season, the Iowa caucuses, when she and her team decided that it was time for her to take the gloves off and switch to attack mode.

For a few hours in Iowa, it seemed as if Obama had turned the conventional wisdom of political campaigns on its head. A black candidate had won in Iowa, a rural, predominantly white state. Younger voters, one of his strongest constituencies, were ecstatic. The media quickly came up with a name for the phenomenon: Obamania.

Clinton, her husband and a small group of her closest advisors left the scene of her defeat on a chartered flight. The mood in the small aircraft was grim and a decision was quickly reached, a Clinton advisor later reported. "Hillary has to go negative," they decided. Instead of just tooting her own horn, it was time for Clinton to start focusing on her rival's weaknesses, especially his lack of experience.

New Stategies -- Image Molding

The offensive Clinton and her small team of advisors decided on is something the country has rarely seen in this early phase of a presidential election campaign. They devised a new line of attack, in which she would paint Obama as a man of words and herself as a woman of action, Obama as a good speaker, but Clinton as the more effective president. On that flight home from Iowa, the Clinton team decided that battle was the new operative word in the election campaign.

Everyone on the Clinton team knew that it was a risky strategy to transform what had been more of an advertising campaign for their candidate into an all-out duel. The strategic shift away from Clinton's former approach, in which she vied for voter approval while dismissing her adversary by not taking him seriously, toward open battle tactics was an all-or-nothing gamble. It would either end in her victory march at the Democratic Convention in Denver, or it would spell an inglorious end to the Clinton era.


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