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As Right Jabs Continue, White House Debates a Counterpunching Strategy

Although Obama does not pore over the conservative attacks himself, he is not oblivious to them, advisers said. He does not watch cable television regularly, but he reads his news summary each morning, and he often follows up with staff members when he hears what he considers out-of-bounds allegations -- sometimes after learning of them in e-mails from friends outside the White House, for example, or from ordinary voters at rallies. Little of it surprises him, aides said.

"In the fall of the campaign, you could find many similar sentiments at McCain-Palin rallies and certainly at Sarah Palin rallies," communications director Anita Dunn said. "These aren't new arguments. The level of vehemence, the emotional level of it, is at a campaign peak, which is unusual to find in a non-campaign year."

Dunn played down the role that race could have in fueling the rancor. "I think that is less a part of it than some other people might think," she said. "If you look at the history of this country, you see that in times of great stress and change, there are people who are concerned, who are threatened, there are people who are scared."

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel echoed her point. "Father Coughlin called Roosevelt a socialist, the John Birch Society was created in reaction to Kennedy, Clinton had [Richard Mellon] Scaife and others who went after him," he said. "And now they've come after Obama on Socialism and other things. This has always been a creed from those voices dealing with Democratic presidents. But yes, there's an intensity, given the [rapid media] time frame we're all under, that's different."

During the Clinton administration, conservative opposition mounted to such a degree that the Clintons came to view it as a "vast right-wing conspiracy," bankrolled by wealthy conservatives and airing damning claims, such as their alleged involvement in the death of their friend Vincent W. Foster Jr., whose death was ruled a suicide. Partisan warfare became blood sport, and while President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed at times to revel in it, it had a political price: Obama found success in the Democratic primaries in part by promising to move past the fighting.

Now, the challenge for Obama will be to maintain that stance without ceding ground to his most extreme critics, whom administration officials believe are trying to mount an existential threat to the president.

"There's a broader argument that is the underlying argument to all of these attacks, which is a very fundamental struggle about trying to tear this president down and delegitimize his presidency," said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That is really the war. And all of these are skirmishes -- some of them flare up into battles -- but the broader war is about the fate of this presidency and the other side's attempts to delegitimize him and to make him into a failure."

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