When Attacked, Obama's Now Hitting Back

Sen. Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary after attacks from his main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, went largely unanswered.
Sen. Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary after attacks from his main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, went largely unanswered. (Kevin Clifford - AP)
By Shailagh Murray and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 19, 2008

RENO, Nev., Jan. 18 -- The hundreds of people who turned out at the University of Nevada on Friday heard Sen. Barack Obama deliver a lofty stump speech about bridging the nation's divides and creating a groundswell for change. But they also witnessed him engage in the more mundane task of rebutting attacks from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on his positions on Social Security taxes and on the proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

"When Senator Clinton implied that I'm for Yucca when I've never been for it, that's a problem. That erodes people's confidence in our politics," Obama said.

It was a sign of a lesson learned the hard way: Let no attack go unanswered.

After his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Obama arrived in New Hampshire more as the head of a movement than as a candidate, greeted by huge crowds that lined up for hours to hear a speech that could have been delivered at a suburban megachurch, all empowerment and inspiration.

While the Democratic senator from Illinois was holding his rallies, though, Clinton's campaign sent out a mailing accusing him of being soft in his support for abortion rights, organized 24 prominent New Hampshire women to send an e-mail echoing that charge and distributed a flier accusing him of seeking a big tax increase on working families. The charges were debatable, but Obama's only response was a hastily arranged automated phone call decrying the abortion attack. Clinton won the primary with strong support from the mailings' target audiences -- women and working-class voters.

Locked in a close race with Clinton that could continue well beyond the Feb. 5 primaries once seen as the campaign's decisive moment, the Obama team is determined not to make the same mistake. Much of the feel-good imagery was ditched in the New England snow, and it has been replaced by a more traditional campaign that rebuts and prebuts, brags about endorsements, and engages with -- rather than floats above -- the competition.

In Nevada, which holds its caucuses Saturday, the campaign has reverted to "town hall" meetings built around audience questions, rather than the rousing standalone speeches Obama gave in New Hampshire.

The shift in both tone and substance was apparent in a debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. Gone was the sense of easy confidence that Obama carried into the last debate before the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary. This time he was all business on issues such as energy, the mortgage crisis and Iraq.

"We came into New Hampshire on a high," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser. "The iconic rallies, combined with the polling, conveyed a sense that we were taking it for granted. She [Clinton] looked like she was working for it, scraping for it." He added, "This is a long process, and this is how you learn."

But the new, more aggressive strategy also poses a challenge for Obama: The more time he spends rebutting Clinton attacks, the more difficult it is for him to focus on the broader themes and uplifting rhetoric that have been drawing voters to him. While Obama may have the facts on his side -- at least in several instances -- engaging with the senator from New York may seem to many voters to be a wearying and obscure show of tit-for-tats that distracts from his overarching offer of a "new kind of politics."

But the need for such a rapid response is heightened by Obama's tendency to say things that his rival's campaign can seize on as fodder for attacks. On Friday, the Clinton campaign organized a conference call with several congressmen to lambaste Obama's remarks, in an editorial board interview in Nevada, about the transformative nature of Ronald Reagan, who, Obama said, "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it." The Obama campaign quickly arranged its own call with congressmen, arguing that the remarks were a historical observation, not an endorsement of Reagan's politics.

On Friday night there was another attack, a radio ad from the Clinton campaign in which basketball star and Clinton friend Earvin "Magic" Johnson calls Obama a "rookie." The Obama campaign immediately produced a rebuttal noting that Johnson in his rookie year won the MVP award in the National Basketball Association finals.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company