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Obama Hits Back, Too Softly For Some

By Jonathan Weisman and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 7, 2008

Barack Obama released a television advertisement yesterday that questions John McCain's claims to be a "maverick," and he charged in a campaign appearance that the Republican displays independence only when it suits him politically.

Obama aides said Democratic hand-wringing about polls showing that the presidential race remains tight had nothing to do with the volleys.

"We are not going to base our campaign on the concerns of so-called campaign strategists on cable TV," spokesman Bill Burton said.

But the ad and the Democrat's rhetoric in Indiana appeared to up the ante in a campaign that took a distinct turn toward the negative last week.

"The price [McCain] paid for his party's nomination has been to reverse himself on position after position," Obama told a crowd of more than 1,000 at a high school gym in Elkhart. "That doesn't meet my definition of a maverick. You can't be a maverick when politically it's important for you but not a maverick when it doesn't work for you."

The parries come more than a week after his Republican opponent launched a string of increasingly personal attacks on Obama. McCain has said that his rival would lose a war in order to win a campaign, accused him of going to a gym rather than visiting wounded troops, and, while aides asserted that he had "played the race card," hinted that Obama has a messiah complex and portrayed him as a celebrity comparable to Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. That final line of assault continued yesterday with a new McCain ad, again mocking Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world."

Such attacks have raised worries among Democratic strategists -- haunted by John F. Kerry's 2004 run and Al Gore's razor-thin loss in 2000 -- that Obama has not responded in kind with a parallel assault on McCain's character. Interviews with nearly a dozen Democratic strategists found those concerns to be widespread, although few wished to be quoted by name while Obama's campaign is demanding unity.

"Democrats are worried," said Tad Devine, a top strategist for Kerry who thinks Obama must stay on the high road. "We've been through two very tough elections at the national level, and it's very easy to lose confidence."

Obama's latest ad may be his toughest yet, using words and images to link McCain to President Bush and concluding: "The original maverick? Or just more of the same?"

But Democratic strategists said that it is nothing like the character attacks by McCain, and that the response could be far nastier, perhaps raising McCain's ethical scrape in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, mocking his family wealth and designer shoes, or highlighting his age. After McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm suggested that the United States has become "a nation of whiners," Democratic strategists said Obama should have immediately started an ad blitz.

"If somebody attacks you, you have to frame the attack: 'This is the same old politics, or better yet, the Bush-Rove politics,' " something Obama has done well, said one Democratic strategist. "At the same time you do that, you have to counterattack. You don't want to look like a whiner. You want to look tough."

Said another Democratic consultant: "There needs to be a negative McCain track beyond the Bush policy stuff. One of the great strengths of the Obama campaign has been to not listen to the D.C. chattering class. They have a plan and they stick to it. But clearly, the D.C. chattering class are all wringing their hands."

A liberal advertising consultant said: "There's frustration there because they're watching these childish ad campaigns, and they know exactly how to answer it, but they're powerless to do so."

Powerless, that is, because most of the independent groups that would have taken the lead in such an independent campaign have been sidelined by Obama's insistence that Democratic donors channel their money to him, rather than outside groups. Obama's efforts have succeeded in maintaining message discipline in a campaign predicated on what the senator from Illinois has called a new kind of politics.

But that has hamstrung what would have been one of the three fronts on which Democrats had hoped to wage the 2008 campaign, said Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager. Obama's team was able to push back quickly against McCain's character attacks, she said, and the Democratic National Committee is beginning to engage the Republican National Committee in a more cutting effort, yesterday starting an "Exxon-McCain '08" campaign that portrays the Republican as the running mate of the oil giant.

But the surrogate groups remain dormant, Brazile said, because of Obama's decision to cut them out.

"There are no independent groups. Everybody's walked off the field," said Tom Matzzie, who left MoveOn.org to form Progressive Media USA specifically to launch a massive attack against McCain. The group has since disbanded for lack of funding.

So far, said Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org's executive director, the best response to McCain's celebrity attack has come from Paris Hilton herself, who released her own ad Tuesday calling McCain "the oldest celebrity in the world, like super old."

Consultants close to Obama say the Democrat has good reason not to risk his own campaign by following McCain's lead. Because McCain has accepted public financing for the general-election campaign, he must spend all his primary campaign money before the party conventions. Obama is focusing on turning out voters, while airing a mix of positive ads and responses.

And more ads may not help, according to a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday. Nearly half of respondents -- including 51 percent of independents -- said they have been hearing too much about Obama lately, and 22 percent said all that news has made them feel less favorable toward him. On the other hand, significantly more Americans view McCain's ads as mostly negative than say the same of Obama's.

Because Obama opted out of public financing and the spending limits that come with it, he will be free to swamp McCain with television spots in the fall. If he needs to become more negative at that point, he can -- knowing that McCain would be hard pressed to reply.

Obama spokesman Burton said the campaign sees no reason to shift strategy.

"This is a classic Washington story, anonymous quotes from armchair quarterbacks with no sense of our strategy, data or plan," he said.

Bacon reported from Elkhart, Ind.

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