By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
With losses in three out of four primaries yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his campaign face a scenario that a barrage of advertising, phone calls and door-knocking could not avert -- a protracted, two-front war against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Even before the polls opened, campaign officials were dreading an outcome that would keep Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the race at least through the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. Those seven weeks will cost Obama at least $10 million, and possibly much more, campaign aides say, as he battles a rejuvenated Clinton who will have every incentive to try to force him into a major mistake.
Obama aides also expect to take concentrated fire from McCain (Ariz.) and his Republican allies, who have already begun raising questions about the 46-year-old Democratic senator's credibility, authenticity and even his patriotism.
For months before his victory in Iowa, doubters questioned whether Obama had the stomach to deliver the blows necessary to wear down Clinton's advantages. Now, the question is whether he can take a punch -- "and you know they will be coming," said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), a Clinton supporter.
Some Obama supporters are increasing pressure on him to shift tactics, frame more sharply his criticism of his opponents and begin inoculating himself from the GOP attacks, but Obama remains reluctant to change the approaches that he still thinks will secure him the nomination. "I have said consistently that we do things differently," Obama said. "It's worked for us so far. And I'm not going to do things that I'm not comfortable in doing."
To be sure, Obama campaign aides think the defeats yesterday in Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas will not alter his path to the Democratic nomination. Under the Democratic Party's system of distributing delegates proportionately, Obama will maintain a lead in pledged delegates, and any diminishment of that delegate lead is likely to be recouped in Saturday's Wyoming caucuses and next Tuesday's Mississippi primary.
"No matter what happens tonight, we have nearly the same delegate lead we had this morning," Obama said last night in San Antonio, "and we are on our way to winning this nomination."
Obama aides stressed that the campaign will not be drawn into a fight for Pennsylvania on Clinton's terms: an expensive, all-out battle focused on her. Instead, the campaign's main target will be McCain -- a point underscored by Obama when he declared himself "ready to start a great debate about the future of the country with a man who loves his country and served it bravely."
But Democratic leaders outside the campaign are worried that a candidate who cruised through his only Senate campaign, in 2004, does not know what is about to hit him. Republicans are already planting the seeds for a negative campaign designed to make one overarching point, said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama supporter and informal adviser: This man is not who you think he is.
"You have to question whether he is equipped to deal with the complex and serious issues that are facing the nation," said Danny Diaz, the Republican National Committee's communications director.
Republicans such as Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.) have used Obama's decision not to wear an American flag on his lapel to question his patriotism. Virtually every day, the Republican Jewish Coalition sends e-mails to Jewish voters questioning Obama's commitment to Israel. And darker e-mail and Internet campaigns continue to falsely suggest that Obama is everything from a Muslim to a terrorist sympathizer.
McCain has already made clear how he will try to brand Obama if they are opponents in November, drawing on the Illinois Democrat's Senate votes on abortion, taxes and guns as evidence that he is out of the mainstream.
But more broadly, Republicans are poised to offer what they consider a stark contrast between McCain's lifetime of experience -- in war, in the Senate, in politics -- and a caricature of a young, inexperienced neophyte with little but fancy rhetoric to offer.
That is a line of attack Clinton has tried for weeks. But McCain's advisers say they think their candidate will be more effective in convincing the public that Obama is not ready to lead the nation, especially during an economic downturn and while waging two wars overseas.
As part of the wide-ranging case they have begun constructing, they plan to follow some of the threads that Clinton has already exposed: Obama's ties to Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko; the senator's failure to hold hearings on Afghanistan in his Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee; his decision to repeatedly vote "present" in the Illinois legislature.
A senior Obama strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged that he is receiving varied advice from Democrats, including changing Obama's stump speech to emphasize his American roots and pushing for a second round of changes in the nation's welfare laws, this time aimed at stray fathers.
If Obama finds himself forced to defend his patriotism before a skeptical electorate, he will be in deep trouble, Vilsack warned. But, he added, "what's the alternative, ignore it? We paid a price in 2004 for thinking the charge wouldn't stick."
Davis said Obama needs to immediately preempt attacks on his patriotism by reprising the theme of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention -- that only in the United States of America could the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from a small-town in Kansas aspire to the heights of power. Obama took up that theme last night, but only deep inside his San Antonio address.
Other Democrats worry that Republicans might find some nugget from Obama's days as a community organizer in Chicago to paint him as a radical who will be unwilling to challenge liberal orthodoxy on social and poverty issues.
But Obama has resisted such entreaties. "There's no reason why we would want to change our approach," Obama said yesterday.
Obama is accustomed to doubts about his ability to withstand an opponent's attacks. During his 2004 Senate race, he kept above his desk an image of Muhammad Ali defeating Sonny Liston. But that campaign turned into a cakewalk when, first, his main opponent for the Democratic nomination, Blair Hull, and then his expected Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, self-destructed.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe scoffs at the notion that Obama will not be prepared for the coming attacks. "The Clintons are the gold standard of negative tactical campaigning," he said. But that attitude worries many Democrats.
"What Barack has shown is the ability to raise a prodigious amount of money. The one thing I don't know that Barack has proven is, can he take a sustained attack?" asked one unaffiliated strategist.
Yesterday's results might suggest that Clinton's punches are landing with more force than at any other time in the 13 months since Obama entered the campaign -- and as the Obama campaign is beset by missteps.
Clinton's TV ad last week questioning Obama's readiness in a national security crisis threw him on the defensive, and Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee's meeting with a Canadian consulate official -- a meeting the campaign initially denied had happened -- raised questions about his candor. Couple those issues with the opening days of former Obama supporter Rezko's corruption trial, and Obama entered yesterday's primary elections in the midst of a serious rough patch.
"There's no doubt that if you're being attacked every day, it creates a sense of turbulence," Obama acknowledged.
The campaign's casual response to the Goolsbee episode seemed to assume a presumption of innocence that does not exist for politicians. A story that could have been dealt with the day it broke on Canadian television was instead handled carelessly. Obama said he was told that the story was untrue, but later it became clear that a meeting had taken place, and Clinton seized on the contradiction to portray her opponent as a liar.
"That was the information I had at the time," Obama pleaded on Monday.
Clinton unveiled her "red phone" ad in Texas suggesting that Obama is a foreign policy naif, just as advisers were urging Obama to challenge Clinton's contention that she holds a vast foreign policy advantage. But Obama held back until Sunday afternoon, in Westerville, Ohio.
"We're still waiting to hear Senator Clinton tell us what precise foreign policy experience that she is claiming, that makes her prepared to answer that phone call at three in the morning," Obama said to deafening cheers.
Then he dropped the issue. When reporters were pummeling him at the Monday news conference, Obama described his rival in the most banal of terms. "She is a hardworking candidate," he said.
Even before yesterday, senior Obama campaign officials had been preparing to shift the campaign's "optics," if not the message. Obama's most compelling attribute was supposed to be likability. But as the Obama phenomenon grew, the campaign sent him to ever-larger arenas, transforming him from a regular guy into a virtual demigod before throngs of screaming admirers. Campaign aides then tried to combine intimate, policy-focused roundtables with rallies, but local news broadcasts ran only images of the rallies.
Now, the campaign hopes to keep the rallies separate from the roundtables in each media market. "We all are uncomfortable with a campaign whose signature is a rally," Axelrod said. "If you overdo this, you can lend credence to a caricature that is untrue and unhelpful."
Making adjustments is something all campaigns do. But this is not the situation that Obama's aides hoped they would be in. Axelrod acknowledged that fatigue is setting in. "There's a weariness," he said. "We're in the 27th inning of a nine-inning game."
Staff writers Peter Slevin, Michael D. Shear, and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.