Clinton Ad Hints Obama Is Unprepared for Crisis

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greets supporters in Waco, Tex. The crowd filled half of the city's convention center.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greets supporters in Waco, Tex. The crowd filled half of the city's convention center. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)
By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 1, 2008

WACO, Tex., Feb. 29 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launched an across-the-board assault on Sen. Barack Obama on Friday, questioning in a provocative new television ad his ability to keep the nation safe as her advisers sought to raise an array of questions about her rival's ethics and electability.

In the ad, a narrator says that a telephone is ringing in the White House and that "your vote" will determine whether "someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world" will answer it. In the last scene, Clinton (N.Y.) is pictured picking up a phone while the narrator says: "It's 3 a.m., and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"

Obama (Ill.) dismissed the ad as fear-mongering. "The question is not about picking up the phone. The question is, what kind of judgment will you make when you answer?" he said in a meeting with veterans in Houston. "We've had a red-phone moment. It was the decision to invade Iraq. And Senator Clinton gave the wrong answer."

The Obama campaign said it was putting up its own ad, with a similar script but a different ending: "Who understood the real threat to America was al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, not Iraq?" the narrator asks. "Who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe? . . . In a dangerous world, it's judgment that matters."

With early balloting coming to a close in Texas, Clinton campaign officials tried to recast the importance of Tuesday's primaries and caucuses here and in Ohio; former president Bill Clinton recently said his wife must win both to stay in the race after 11 straight defeats over the past three weeks. Her aides said that the onus is on Obama to win both primaries to prove himself the front-runner and suggested that Clinton will stay in the race even if she loses one of the big contests. Rhode Island and Vermont will also hold primaries Tuesday.

"If you are acting like the nominee, if you are essentially declaring the race over, you ought to be able to win the contests that are coming up," Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton adviser, said in a conference call with other senior aides and reporters that lasted more than an hour. "And if you don't, it says something profound about Democrats' unease with handing the nomination to somebody with such little experience and so many unanswered questions."

As their campaigns held dueling conference calls and released competing ads, Clinton and Obama nearly crossed paths in Texas before returning to Ohio and, over the weekend, heading back to Texas. Clinton attended a funeral service in Dallas for a motorcycle policeman killed in her motorcade last week. She also appeared at a half-empty convention center here in Waco for an event designed to highlight her national security experience.

Obama advisers continued to argue that Tuesday is Clinton's make-or-break day, her final opportunity to stop her rival's momentum and climb back into contention in the delegate count. But Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, sought to lower expectations of a popular-vote blowout similar to Obama's runaway victories in Wisconsin and Virginia.

Only in Vermont, the smallest of the four March 4 prizes, is Obama the clear favorite. But Plouffe asserted that even if Clinton performs reasonably well on Tuesday, winning at least one of the big states, her prospects for closing the delegate gap are remote, verging on hopeless.

"Our number one goal is to maintain and, if we can, build on our pledged-delegate lead," Plouffe said. The Clinton team, he said, is "fighting with every fiber of their being," but he added: "We think we're in very good shape heading into next Tuesday."

The Obama campaign also announced that it had won the support of five more superdelegates, including Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.).

The Clinton "phone" ad, produced by Texas advertising guru Roy Spence, bears a strong resemblance to a spot that Spence made in 1984 for Walter Mondale in his successful campaign to beat Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination. That ad featured a red phone and questioned whether Hart had the experience to be president.

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