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Ask Tough Questions? Yes, They Can!

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

SAN ANTONIO It took many months and the mockery of "Saturday Night Live" to make it happen, but the lumbering beast that is the press corps finally roused itself from its slumber Monday and greeted Barack Obama with a menacing growl.

The day before primaries in Ohio and Texas that could effectively seal the Democratic presidential nomination for him, a smiling Obama strode out to a news conference at a veterans facility here. But the grin was quickly replaced by the surprised look of a man bitten by his own dog.

Reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters went after him for his false denial that a campaign aide had held a secret meeting with Canadian officials over Obama's trade policy. A trio of Chicago reporters pummeled him with questions about the corruption trial this week of a friend and supporter. The New York Post piled on with a question about him losing the Jewish vote.

Obama responded with the classic phrases of a politician in trouble. "That was the information that I had at the time. . . . Those charges are completely unrelated to me. . . . I have said that that was a mistake. . . . The fact pattern remains unchanged."

When those failed, Obama tried another approach. "We're running late," the candidate said, and then he disappeared behind a curtain.

Before he beat his hasty retreat, however, Obama found time to assign blame for the tough questions suddenly coming his way. "The Clinton campaign has been true to its word in employing a 'kitchen sink' strategy," he protested. "There are, what, three or four things a day?"

Spoken like a man who had just been hit on the head with a heavy piece of porcelain.

Obama may be the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but to a large extent Hillary Clinton is setting the terms of the debate in the final days before Tuesday's crucial primaries. If Clinton doesn't win both states, even her closest advisers have said she'll face pressure to pull out of the race -- and yet, for the first time in months, she seems to have put Obama on the defensive.

First came her ringing-phone ad last week: "It's 3 a.m., and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?" Then the Clinton campaign trumpeted the acknowledgment that a top Obama aide had discussed NAFTA with a Canadian official -- contradicting adamant denials by Obama and his underlings. Add to that the opening of the trial in Chicago for Obama pal Tony Rezko, and Obama had lost any hope of controlling the theme of the day.

Even the much-mocked Clinton assertion that she offers "solutions" instead of Obama's "speeches" appears to have spooked him into a change in tactics. The candidate has largely disarmed himself of the mass rallies that have been the high points of his campaign in favor of small and sober town hall forums.

And so, Obama found himself in San Antonio on Monday, presenting a small group of veterans with a collection of small-bore policies that sounded downright Clintonian. "I led a bipartisan effort to improve outpatient facilities. . . . I passed legislation to get family members health care while they're caring for injured troops. . . . I've introduced legislation to make sure each service member receives electronic copies of their medical and service records upon discharge."

The modest proposals were met with modest applause.

For 40 slow minutes, Obama delivered his policy prescriptions and answered questions from the veterans. "I want the budgets to come in on time!" he told one questioner. He pledged to another his support for SR 1838, a new VA facility in the Rio Grande Valley. He told a third questioner about his plan for a $4,000 tuition credit. And the great orator found himself proclaiming that "it makes sense to have transferability."

Whatever. Reporters, at tables in the back of the room, answered e-mails and read newspapers. Obama, by making no news in his speech, had left them plenty of time to plot their ambush -- executed minutes later to the obvious surprise of the candidate.

"I don't have any preliminary statement," Obama said as he began his news conference, encouraging reporters to "just dive in." That was a mistake.

Tom Raum of the Associated Press led off with a question about whether an Obama aide had told Canadians not to take seriously the candidate's public rhetoric critical of the NAFTA trade agreement. "Let me, let me, let me, let me just be absolutely clear what happened," Obama answered, explaining that the meeting was a "courtesy" and involved no "winks and nods."

Then an agitator -- columnist Carol Marin with the Chicago Sun-Times -- broke in. Marin, a visitor to the Obama entourage who accused the regulars of being too "quiet," accused the candidate of concealing details about fundraisers Rezko had for him and a real estate transaction between the two.

"I don't think it's fair to suggest somehow that we've been trying to hide the ball on this," Obama answered. But this only provoked a noisy back-and-forth between Marin, Sun-Times colleague Lynn Sweet and Michael Flannery from Chicago's CBS affiliate. "How many fundraisers? . . . Who was there? . . . Disclosure of the closing documents?"

Obama, while repeating his formulation that it was "a boneheaded move" to do business with Rezko, tried to shut down the requests for more information. "These requests, I think, could just go on forever," he said. "At some point, what we need to try to do is respond to what's pertinent."

Reporters, however, had a different idea of what was pertinent, and the questions about Rezko, NAFTA and other unpleasant subjects continued to come. An aide called out "last question," and Obama made his move for the exit -- only for reporters to shout after him in protest. "C'mon, guys," he pleaded. "I just answered, like, eight questions."

The questioning, however, has only just begun.

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