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 Much of the feel-good imagery was ditched in the New England snow, and it has been replaced by a more traditional campaign that rebuts and prebuts, brags about endorsements, and engages with -- rather than floats above -- the competition.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.
Clinton's charge questioning Obama's credentials on abortion rights surfaced a month before the Iowa caucuses; she cited Obama's votes of "present," rather than "yes" or "no," on some abortion bills in the Illinois Senate as proof that he is shaky on the issue. The Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women had criticized the votes, but the Obama campaign pointed to statements by Pam Sutherland, the head of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, saying the "present" votes were part of a strategy to protect legislators in vulnerable districts. Obama has 100 percent ratings from abortion rights groups.
But the mailing in New Hampshire, which stated in bold that Obama was "unwilling to take a stand on choice," arrived much closer to the vote there than in Iowa. His campaign rushed out an automated phone call two days before primary day, but on the final day of the campaign, volunteers reported with dismay that many voters were asking about Obama's stance on abortion rights.
This week, the campaign took a more combative approach. Last Saturday, Obama staffers called Sutherland to ask her to publicly explain the "present" votes. "The facts are the facts -- he helped us with a winning strategy," she said in a conference call with reporters the next day.
Clinton also attacked Obama's position on Social Security in a mailing that went to voters in New Hampshire and Nevada, accusing him of seeking a "trillion dollar tax increase on America's hardworking families." It was a reference to his statements that he would consider addressing Social Security's deficit by raising the $97,500 limit on salaries subject to payroll tax. At times, he has suggested a "doughnut hole" of untaxed salary above the current limit and taxing everything above $200,000.
Obama let the charge go unanswered in New Hampshire. But in Nevada he has offered a defense to his audiences, saying that raising the cap, particularly if limited to those earning more than $200,000, would make the tax more fair to working-class Americans, and noting that Clinton told a voter a few months ago that she was open to the idea. Her principal proposal for addressing Social Security is to restore "fiscal responsibility" and to appoint a study commission.
On Thursday came another Clinton broadside, a radio ad airing in Nevada that charged that Obama is "hip-deep in financial ties" to Chicago-based Exelon, a nuclear plant operator that supports the Yucca Mountain waste site, which is hugely unpopular in this state. Obama got Nevada supporters on the phone to assure reporters of his opposition to the Yucca site, and he rehashed it in his appearances.
In engaging more directly, the Obama campaign has mostly refrained from using its own radio ads or mailings to attack Clinton's record or proposals. A union backing him began running a harshly worded Spanish-language radio ad this week accusing Clinton of suppressing working-class voters because some of her supporters filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging caucus sites at Las Vegas casinos.
But, as the Clinton campaign points out, that does not mean that Obama has avoided attacks altogether -- he weaves them into his comments on the stump and in interviews, where his barbs have grown sharper. In Reno on Friday, he ridiculed an answer Clinton gave during the Las Vegas debate about her support for a 2001 Senate bankruptcy bill that was backed by credit-card companies and strongly opposed by consumer groups. Clinton said she was glad the measure never became law. "Think about that," Obama said. "She voted for it even though she hoped it wouldn't pass."
The crowd favorite was Obama's reenactment of how Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) responded during the debate to a question about their biggest weaknesses. Obama recalled his own answer -- that he is disorganized. "And Senator Edwards says, 'I'm just so passionate about poor people. And helping them.' And then Hillary says, 'My biggest weakness is I'm so impatient about bringing about real change to America.' "
Smiling, Obama added: "This is what I mean. This is political speak. This is what you learn in Washington, from all those years of experience."
Watching the new course Obama has taken, some campaign insiders like to think the New Hampshire loss was not the worst outcome for a candidate who is relatively new to the national stage, compared with Clinton, and followed a relatively easy path to the Senate. Had Obama won in New Hampshire, said one prominent Democrat, he might have become the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, "but he wouldn't be ready for the general election, he wouldn't be ready for the White House."
MacGillis reported from Washington.