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

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

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"Are there some people who might see him as less than the idealistic candidate that he was at the beginning of this process? Certainly," said an Obama adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity last night. "But part of what we are trying to do is confront an effort by his opponents to paint him negatively. At some point, he's got to be able to respond."

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In recent days, the Obama campaign has flogged Clinton's exaggerations about a long-ago trip to Bosnia, framed comments she made about MoveOn.org activists as her own version of "Bitter-gate," and accused her of tactics reminiscent of Democratic nemesis Karl Rove.

"Senator Clinton has internalized a lot of the strategies and the tactics that have made Washington such a miserable place, where all we do is bicker and all we do is fight," Obama said last weekend.

With Obama clearly favored in North Carolina, even he has called Indiana the "tiebreaker," a state that adjoins Illinois but where Clinton voters hold sway in the working-class towns in the south. In the two weeks leading up to the Indiana primary, a Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign said aides are likely to turn to the controversies of Bill Clinton's White House years -- Hillary Clinton's trading cattle futures, Whitewater and possibly impeachment.

"Everyone knows the history of the Clintons," the strategist said.

Plouffe would not say the campaign planned to address that period, but seemed open to the possibility in the future: "The Republicans certainly are going to look at those issues, the Clinton finances, the record issues. We have chosen not to go there."

Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster, said the onslaught of negativity that saturated Pennsylvania and is likely to wash over the big final primary states of Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon has not registered with many voters. "The presumption is that everyone's paying attention, and they're not," he said.

But there are signs that the brutal slog is taking a toll. Clear polling leads that Obama once held over Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, have disappeared.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said even before a controversy erupted over Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., focus groups were turning on the candidate. In Tennessee, they criticized him for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel and his wife, Michelle, for calling the United States "downright mean."

The candidate of hope is morphing into an Ivy League scold, Ayres said -- and Republicans can hardly believe their fortune. With President Bush's approval ratings at record lows, oil prices soaring, housing foreclosures spreading and an unpopular war raging on, the GOP faces what may be the worst political environment since the early 1970s. And, they say, Democrats are making the same mistake now.

"He's George McGovern without the military experience," Ayres said of Obama. And the Clinton campaign will exploit such an attack, as her backers seek to convince superdelegates -- Democratic elected officials and party powers who will decide the nominee -- that Obama is unelectable.

"There's a reason Sen. Obama and his campaign have ratcheted up their year-long assault on Sen. Clinton's character and ended the Pennsylvania campaign with a flurry of harsh negative attacks," a Clinton campaign memo asserted yesterday. "It's because they know that a loss in Pennsylvania will raise troubling questions about his candidacy and his ability to take on John McCain in the general election."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.


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