Gearing Up for Battle Republicans Divided over How to Run against Obama

As the Republicans prepare to face Barack Obama as the likely Democratic candidate in the presidential election, they are already gearing up to apply their traditional tactics. John McCain appears to be uneasy about smear campaigns, but others could use exaggeration and even slander to defeat Obama.

By and Gabor Steingart


The US presidential election is down to three candidates. But if Barack Obama wins the Texas and Ohio primaries, he will likely bag the Democratic nomination -- pitting him against John McCain in the White House race.
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The US presidential election is down to three candidates. But if Barack Obama wins the Texas and Ohio primaries, he will likely bag the Democratic nomination -- pitting him against John McCain in the White House race.

Barack Obama knows how to get his audiences going. He consistently uses a handful of powerful words to good effect, words like "hope" and "change." He has also taken to mentioning the name Karl Rove.

"George W. Bush is no longer on the ballot in November," Obama tells 2,000 supporters at a rally in Corpus Christi, Texas. The crowd roars, as if someone had pressed an invisible button, and as if Obama were telling his listeners something they didn't already know.

Obama also knows that he can up the ante and generate even more applause by mentioning another name. And if that's the case, he says, we're also finished with Karl Rove and his tactics. The crowd is ecstatic.

Karl Rove was the strategic genius behind President Bush, which, for many Democrats, makes him the sinister mastermind of a dying era. His name is synonymous with ideological civil war, perfidious treatment of political adversaries and the unscrupulous use of age-old animosities to play off groups against one another in a country with as much ethnic diversity as the United States. It is a proven strategy, and one that still seems to work in election campaigns today.

Obama's and his supporters' glee over Rove's departure could be premature. Rove has been surprisingly active in the past few weeks.

He was recently spotted at a meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the place where Julia Roberts once charmed Richard Gere in "Pretty Woman." In the meeting, which was closed to the public, about 70 conservatives spent three days talking about how to put together a Republican campaign strategy that would lead to success in the November presidential election. Rove was the most prominent speaker at the conference.

Jeffrey Ressner, with the magazine Politico, was the only journalist allowed into the conference room. When he walked in, a PowerPoint presentation was being projected onto a screen. "Obama isn't ready yet to do the job of the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces," one of the slides read. Another item, which had deliberately been left vague, seemed to bear Rove's signature: "'Certain issues' will be raised during the campaign" -- a reference to Obama's admission that he used drugs as a teenager, to his Islamic middle name Hussein, which is unusual in the United States, and perhaps even to his skin color.

Many things are possible if strategists like Rove decide to get into the fray. The core message of the presentation was clear: "Obama's greatest weakness is his lack of experience. He isn't ready to be president yet."

Graphic: Racking up delegates

Graphic: Racking up delegates

Until this week's primaries, Democrats and Republicans had been more focused on rivals within their own parties. But once the votes have been counted after the Texas and Ohio primaries on Tuesday, it will be highly likely that the left and the right will switch gears from simply observing the enemy to open warfare. Conservative strategists already have their sights set on this election year's shooting star, Barack Obama, a 46-year-old senator with a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. If New York Senator Hillary Clinton fails to achieve a clear victory in the Texas and Ohio primaries, it will be difficult to deprive the senator from Illinois of the Democratic presidential nomination.

This means one thing for Republicans: It's open season on Barack Obama.

Pitting a Reformer against a Warhorse

They are already urging John McCain, the 71-year-old Republican candidate, not to repeat Hillary Clinton's mistakes. For months she ignored her rival's sharp upward trajectory, then she underestimated him and, finally, she seemed more offended than effective in heading off the Obama challenge.

This is why America could be looking forward to the sort of spectacle of a campaign it hasn't seen in a long time -- one that pits black against white, opponents of the Iraq war against veterans of the Vietnam War, an idealistic reformer against a proven warhorse, a rookie against an elderly gentleman.

McCain will have to prove right off the bat that this year's Oscar winner, "No Country for Old Men," is fiction and not a reflection of the country's mood today. He is betting the charisma of his past against the personal charisma of his opponent, his lifetime of experience against Obama's embodiment of a hope that deep divisions can be overcome after all.

Their many differences aside, the two candidates have at least one thing in common: McCain and Obama are nonconformists, politicians outside the mainstream of their respective parties. Nevertheless, anyone who was expecting a relatively peaceful campaign will probably be disappointed. There is a strong desire in both camps to attack the respective rival as effectively as possible. Many Democrats yearn to settle the score with the Bush era and its arrogant neoconservatives. They want to see Obama capture the White House by storm.

McCain's supporters, on the other hand, expect him to stalwartly champion the cause of the beleaguered right wing and -- digging deep into a war chest of Rovian tactics -- not to pull any punches against his rival. Exaggeration and even slander, if necessary, have been among the key ingredients of conservative election victories in the past.

The 2004 presidential election campaign was a perfect example of the effectiveness of the Republicans' offensive strategy. With surgical precision, Rove and his cohorts destroyed the aura of the Democratic candidate.

During the course of the campaign the Republicans managed to paint John Kerry, a true war hero, as a coward and redefine him as the epitome of the indecisive flip-flopper. One Republican campaign ad depicted Kerry while windsurfing -- in other words, as someone who changes his mind whenever the wind changes direction.

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