Obama Looks To Turn Debate Into a Victory

By Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 18, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C., April 17 -- A day after undergoing the toughest grilling of the campaign, Sen. Barack Obama attempted to get back on the offensive Thursday, arguing that his candidacy offers a clear departure from the attack politics and trivial issues that he said have dominated presidential campaigns and led to gridlock in Washington.

"Washington hasn't gotten the news yet that people want something different," the senator from Illinois told an audience at a campaign rally in Raleigh. "Last night we set a new record. It took us 45 minutes . . . before we heard about health care. Forty-five minutes before we heard about Iraq. Forty-five minutes before we heard about jobs. That's how Washington is."

Obama and his team appeared taken aback by some of the negative reviews of his performance in the 90-minute debate in Philadelphia with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). In their estimation, he had more than held his own and delivered a stronger performance than in some early debates, when his low-key style sometimes appeared soft in contrast to Clinton's bite.

Clinton, campaigning in Pennsylvania with her daughter, Chelsea, and her mother, Dorothy Rodham, tried to stay on a positive track after jumping in frequently Wednesday to add her own criticisms of Obama after he had been questioned sharply by moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

But in a conference call with reporters, top Clinton advisers encouraged reporters to continue to pursue some of the issues and questionable associations raised during the Wednesday face-off -- the 21st Democratic debate of the long nomination battle.

The debate moderators drew criticism from Obama allies and others after they devoted the first half of the debate to quizzing Obama about his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, and William Ayers, a member of the radical Weather Underground of the Vietnam era and longtime resident of the Chicago neighborhood where Obama lives.

He was grilled about his comments at a San Francisco fundraiser, where he suggested that many small-town Americans "cling" to guns and religion out of bitterness at their economic situation. He was even asked why he does not wear an American-flag pin on his lapel.

Clinton, too, got some direct questions about her honesty and how she could have repeatedly claimed to have ducked sniper fire while emerging from an airplane in Bosnia in 1996 when video of the arrival showed a tranquil and friendly greeting.

But Obama drew by far the roughest questioning, as one woman noted when she took the microphone at the Raleigh rally. "You were really pummeled," she told him. All those questions on Ayers, Wright, flag pins and guns made her wonder about the general-election attacks that could come. "What is your strategy to beat the Republicans in November?" the woman asked Obama.

"That was the rollout of the Republican campaign against me," Obama responded. "That is what they will do. They will try to focus on all these issues." He said he would answer the attacks "sharply and crisply" and seek to turn the debate from "tit-for-tat silliness" to serious issues such as the economy and Iraq. "If Republicans come at me, I will come right back at them," Obama asserted, to loud cheers.

Obama advisers chalked up the tone of the questions to the fact that Obama now being seen as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, making him subject to more intense scrutiny than he was when chasing Clinton earlier in the campaign. "I'm not whining about it," said Obama political adviser David Axelrod. "We showed up."

But just as they did last weekend, when Obama was engulfed in controversy over his remarks about small-town bitterness, he and his advisers sought to turn potential trouble into an advantage. In Thursday's narrative, Obama saw Clinton's performance as a metaphor for the kind of politics he wants to move beyond.

He called Washington a town of "gotcha games," "anything goes" and "slash-and-burn politics." Clinton, he said, "looked in her element" on the stage at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia as he grappled with uncomfortable questions.

The crowd erupted. "That's her right, to twist the knife a little bit," Obama continued. "That's how our politics has been taught to be played."

Later Thursday, the campaign sent out an e-mail soliciting contributions based on what happened at the debate. "Regrettably, Senator Clinton seemed all too comfortable with that type of debate," campaign manager David Plouffe said in the message. "She's running a 100% negative campaign in Pennsylvania, taking every opportunity to make personal and discredited attacks."

Clinton's campaign issued a quick rebuttal to that last charge, noting that while she is running negative ads in advance of Tuesday's primary, she also has positive spots airing in Pennsylvania.

As for the debate itself, Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in an e-mail message: "Both candidates were asked tough questions. The difference was that Hillary gave straightforward answers to the ones she was asked while Senator Obama dodged the ones he got. In the process, he ended up raising more questions about himself than he answered and is now trying to divert attention from his bad night."

Clinton, whose negative ratings have risen in recent weeks as she has gone more on the attack, let her advisers and her husband deliver the tough language Thursday. She repeated none of the criticisms of Obama during an appearance in Haverford, Pa., instead talking about the difficulties of balancing work with family life.

This marked the first joint appearance with both her mother and her daughter since they were together in Iowa before the caucuses there. In her introduction, Chelsea Clinton said, "I can only hope to be as good as a mother as my mother has been for me."

During the question-and-answer session, a supporter asked Clinton what she should say when she went canvassing on her behalf in the Keystone State. "Just knock on the door and say, 'You know, she's really nice," Clinton said to loud applause. "Or you can say . . . 'She's not as bad as you think.' "

But former president Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife in Pennsylvania, dismissed complaints from Obama's camp about the negative tone. "Well, they've been beating up on her for 15 months," Clinton said, according to NBC News. "I didn't hear her whining when he said she was untruthful in Iowa, or called her the senator from Punjab. . . . But you know, this is a contact sport. If you don't want to play, keep your uniform off."

Bacon reported from Pennsylvania with the Clinton campaign. Staff writer Dan Balz in Washington contributed to this report.

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