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Ma Bell for President

By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 7, 2008

It may be time to put the phone references on hold.

The airing last week of Hillary Clinton's ringing-phone ad questioning Barack Obama's fitness to handle a crisis appears to have helped her campaign. But now she's ringing off the hook with references to early-morning calls.

"When the phone rings, whether it's 3 p.m. or 3 a.m. in the White House, there is no time for speeches and on-the-job training," Clinton declared with a smile yesterday in front of a group of retired generals, admirals and other military types. Her military supporters rushed to answer the phone imagery.

"That 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. phone call means a lot," concurred Airborne Ranger Mark Jones.

"Voters shouldn't have to wonder about whether their president will be ready at 3 o'clock in the morning when the phone rings," agreed retired Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard. "They shouldn't have to worry about whether all of the steps necessary have been put in place so that that telephone shouldn't have to ring."

But if the phone just happens to ring anyway, Ballard continued, "this president, the next president, will definitely be ready on Day One and prepared to answer the phone -- regardless of the time."

Stay on the line; the phone imagery had not yet been exhausted.

"Senator, there's been a lot of talk about the 3 a.m. phone calls," one of the television reporters accurately pointed out. "Certainly your husband must have gotten some in his presidency. Can you talk about your role?"

"Obviously," the candidate answered, "I was there for a lot of phone calls at different times of the day and night, and I have a very clear idea of what it takes to be prepared and ready to not only answer the phone but then to make the decisions."

Sorry to break in on this party line, but here's an important announcement for Democrats: You are doing John McCain's work for him. While the presumptive Republican nominee rests, the two remaining Democratic candidates are working as hard as they can to make each other appear unfit to lead.

"Senator McCain will bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign, I will bring a lifetime of experience, and Senator Obama will bring a speech he gave in 2002," a derisive Clinton said yesterday to the retired military officers at the Westin in Dupont Circle.

Obama, in turn, has demanded to know "what exactly is this foreign experience that she's claiming?" His campaign also vowed to go after Clinton on personal issues such as demanding the release of her tax returns; "what's good for the goose is good for the gander," chief Obama strategist David Axelrod proclaimed.

On Thursday morning, the Clinton campaign held a conference call to complain about the new Obama approach. Clinton adviser Ann Lewis accused Obama of "using Republican talking points" and said he "recycled many of the same Republican attacks."

"I don't quite understand," interjected David Corn of Mother Jones magazine. "Don't you think it's fair for them to raise questions about Hillary not releasing her tax returns?"

Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson answered that with a stunning accusation: "I, for one, do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is a way to win a Democratic primary election for president."

Comparing Obama to the Whitewater prosecutor? Even Clinton herself wasn't willing to embrace that level of victimhood when asked about Wolfson's line at her event with the retired brass. "Oh, I'm not going to respond to that," she said.

It seemed odd for Clinton to refuse to respond to her own communications director. But it's a tricky issue for her. While her campaign compares Obama to Starr, Clinton has been taking lessons from another figure unpopular in Democratic primary circles: President Bush.

On the call with Wolfson and Lewis, Jane Hamsher from the liberal blog Firedoglake pointed out that Clinton's phone-ringing ad was "reinforcing the be-afraid-all-the-time Republican campaign theme." And if that's the argument, she added, "isn't John McCain ultimately the winner?"

Whether he is or not, Clinton looked as if she'd borrowed a page from the Bush White House at her Westin meeting. Against a backdrop of six U.S. flags and several of the flag officers who support her, she raised the specter of terrorism and suggested that her opponent could endanger American lives.

She began with a statement about Thursday's explosion in Times Square. This, she said, served as a reminder that "it is imperative to remain vigilant as we continue to face threats at home and abroad."

That led, in a seamless but unseemly way, to Obama. "Often, when lives are on the line and a decision must be made, experience counts for everything," she said. "In this election, we need a nominee who can pass the commander-in-chief test . . . and keep our families safe."

It was a variation on the Republican theme in recent elections that Democrats mocked as "vote Democratic and die." This time, it's "vote Obama and die."

"It is imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate that we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold," she said. "I believe that I have done that, certainly Senator McCain has done that, and you'll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy."

Good idea. In fact, let's call him at 3 a.m. and see if he answers the phone.

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