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Obama's Gloves Are Off -- And May Need to Stay Off

Sen. Barack Obama speaks after the Pennsylvania's primary Tuesday night. Video by AP, Edited by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Unable once again to score a knockout, Sen. Barack Obama is likely to make his new negative tone even more negative -- with a sharp eye on trying to end the Democratic presidential nomination fight after the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's victory yesterday in Pennsylvania has only accentuated the quandary that Obama faces: Stay negative and he risks undermining the premise of his candidacy. Stay aloof and he underscores Clinton's argument that he will not be able to beat a "Republican attack machine" sure to greet him this summer.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe indicated last night which of those options they would take. "We've done a lot of counterpunching. We've been swift and effective," he said. "For Democrats judging how we're going to perform as the nominee, we have been relentless."

Obama himself took up the cudgel after Clinton delivered a victory speech in Philadelphia devoid of attack lines. Without naming Clinton, he suggested in Evansville, Ind., that she is a captive to the oil, pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies, that she "says and does whatever it takes to win the next election," and that she exploits division for political gain.

"In the end, this election is still our best chance to solve the problems we've been talking about for decades -- as one nation, as one people," Obama said.

But the candidate who rocketed to stardom as the embodiment of a new kind of politics -- hopeful, positive and inspiring -- saw his image tarnished in the bruising fight for Pennsylvania. Provoked by Clinton's repeated references to his remarks about the state's voters and her charges that he is an "elitist," Obama struck back in the closing days of the campaign.

"It's a real danger for Obama, and if you look at these recent ads, the messages they're delivering in all these conference calls, it's a far cry from last fall," when the theme of hope emerged amid calls for a more negative tone, said Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton supporter.

Republican strategist John Feehery put it less charitably: "That's the danger of running as holier-than-thou. You have a lot farther to fall."

Late last year, with the Iowa caucuses looming and Clinton maintaining huge leads in national polling, Obama donors and advisers pressured the campaign to begin drawing sharper distinctions with the senator from New York. Its response was to stay positive, but to out-organize Clinton, especially in caucus states where the organizational acumen of senior Obama aides could be put to best use.

The strategy helped Obama build what is still likely to be an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, total states won and popular votes, while his message filled arenas, inspired artists and energized young voters. But that was not enough yesterday to win over the working-class core of the Democratic Party.

In early exit polls, Clinton was carrying white voters by 24 percentage points, union households by 18 points, and voters without college degrees by 16 points -- all that, according to the Clinton campaign, "after the Obama campaign's 'go-for-broke' Pennsylvania strategy, after their avalanche of negative ads, negative mailers and negative attacks against Sen. Clinton, after their record-breaking spending in the state."

If Obama's image was coarsened in Pennsylvania, the next round of primaries may do it even more damage. But Obama advisers say the campaign is in a far different place than it was last fall. The senator from Illinois is much better known nationally, with an image that will not be easily recast -- either by his opponents or his own tactics.

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