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.
"We've seen these ads before," Obama said during his opening remarks at the first public event of the day, a meeting with veterans at an American Legion post in Houston. "They're the kind that play on people's fears to scare up votes," he said. "Well, it won't work this time."
In their conference call, Clinton officials attempted to focus attention on Obama's relationship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Chicago businessman indicted last fall on federal charges of business fraud and influence peddling, and berated reporters for not asking what they described as a "staggering" number of questions about it.
"Just a couple: Is there anyone on this call who knows how many fundraisers Tony Rezko has thrown for Barack Obama?" Wolfson said. "Is there anyone on this call who knows how much money Tony Rezko has raised for Barack Obama?"
Until his legal problems, Rezko had been a friend of Obama's and a financial supporter of his political career. The Obama campaign says it has given to charity more than $150,000 in contributions linked to Rezko.
Wolfson said Obama has "skated by" in the campaign so far, a common refrain from Clinton advisers who argue that Obama has not been vetted enough to survive a general election.
Another issue raised by the Clinton campaign was a report that an Obama adviser, Austan Goolsbee, had quietly told the Canadian consul in Chicago that Obama would back away from his criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement once he took office.
"The story's just not true," Plouffe said. "No one in our campaign has said or otherwise implied that he would back away from his position on NAFTA."
The Obama campaign, for its part, sought to revive two disclosure issues believed to be Clinton vulnerabilities -- the fact that she has not released her tax returns, and the White House records involving her that are stored at her husband's presidential library.
The campaign noted that for the 2004 Democratic primary season, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) released their tax returns in April 2003 -- a year earlier in the process. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) released his tax returns in December 2003, and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark released his in January 2004, the campaign memo said.
It continued: "As her top Ohio supporter Governor Ted Strickland said in his 2006 campaign, if a candidate is not releasing his or her 'tax return, what is he hiding? We should question what's going on.' "