The morning after, it got nasty.
At Saturday night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton served notice she was looking to tear down Barack Obama with two charges: he's a flip-flopper and he's all talk and no action. And moments after the debate ended, her aides trotted out to the so-called spin room to hammer home these points.
Consequently, it was no surprise that on Sunday morning, she began a day of campaign events in which she declared that New Hampshire voters should elect "a doer, not a talker" and that it was time to distinguish "rhetoric from reality." Her campaign released a statement emphasizing this line of attack that was headlined, "Rhetoric vs. Results, Talk vs. Action." It was not subtle:
At the debate last night it was clear when opponents were asked what change they had made:
Instead of telling New Hamphsire voters what he had done for them, Barack Obama defended rhetoric and talk and cited legislation that bans sit-down meals with lobbyists but allows them to stand up and eat together.
Obama talked about government reform, but denied that the co-chair of his New Hampshire campaign is a lobbyist. He talked about energy reform but couldn't defend his vote in favor of Dick Cheney's energy plan that gave the big oil companies billions in tax breaks. He talked about his speech against the war, but didn't explain why he voted for $300 billion in funding for the war and why he said as late as 2004 that he didn't know how he would have voted on the war.
The Clinton campaign was doing its best to stretch the little oppo research it has been able to dig up on Obama. When Obama voted for the energy bill--which passed the Senate on an 85 to 12 vote--he said that the measure had fallen short of what was necessary to achieve U.S. energy independence. Environmentalists did not fancy the bill, but over half of the Democrats in the Senate supported the legislation. Most of them came from states that would benefit from the subsidies in the bill--as did Obama. This vote was not a shining moment for Obama, but it represented a conventional political decision (help your state), not hypocrisy. As for the Iraq war funding issue, Obama, like other Democratic senators opposing the war (including Clinton), has voted for bills financing the war. Regarding Obama's New Hampshire co-chair, Jim Demers, the Clinton gang did have a point. He is a lobbyist for drug interests and other groups--but in New Hampshire, not Washington, the Obama campaign say. Still, he is an influence-peddler of the sort Obama has decried.
All told, though, the Clinton campaign did not present a strong case. Then came the robo-call charge.
On Sunday afternoon, the Clinton campaign zapped out an email to reporters accusing Obama of conducting illegal campaign activities. The press release said that the Clinton campaign had received reports from New Hampshire voters who were on the do-not-call list but who had received prerecorded calls from the Obama campaign. Under New Hampshire law, it is illegal to robo-call people on the do-not-call registry, and state law requires a prerecorded call to identify its sponsor within 30 seconds. This particular call did not do so for 38 seconds. (The call contained a message from a Planned Parenthood official who said that Obama has a "100 percent pro-choice record." The Clinton campaign has slammed Obama for voting present--neither yea or nay--on seven abortion-related bills during his years as an Illinois state senator.) The Obama campaign, the Clinton crew asserted, "appears" to have violated the law.
The Clinton campaign arranged a conference call for reporters to discuss this pressing matter. During the call, Kathy Sullivan, a co-chair of the Clinton effort in New Hampshire, denounced Obama for the robo-calls. But when a reporter asked how many instances she could cite of a person on the do-not-call list being bothered by one of these messages, she replied, two. That's not a lot.
The Clinton campaign is clearly in the throw-whatever-we-have mode and is hoping that something--anything!---sticks. During this conference call, I questioned Howard Wolfson, the campaign's communications director, about the charge that Obama had been inconsistent on the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton, I noted, now opposes the war, but she, too, has voted to fund it. Isn't it a bit unfair, I asked, for her to slap Obama for doing the same? But Obama, Wolfson countered, "said one thing when he was running for the Senate and then changed his mind."
Obama's campaign says that when he was campaigning for the Senate he opposed the $87 billion funding bill under consideration at the time because it included unnecessary spending. (He then voted for other war funding legislation when he became a senator.) So I asked Wolfson if Clinton was attacking Obama the same way that George W. Bush's campaign had assailed Senator John Kerry, who first supported the $87 billion package but then opposed it after Bush and the Republicans refused to suspend tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for it. Wolfson acknowledged that "there certainly could be...a change of policy, a change of circumstance" that caused Obama to shift his view regarding war funding legislation. But he went on to claim that Obama had changed his approach toward health care, gun control, and mandatory minimum sentences for criminal convictions. "In the case of Senator Obama," he said, "you see a pattern....This is important information for people to know." And, he implied, we're damn sure going to get it to them.
The Obama campaign was preparing itself for the last-minute onslaught. And on Sunday afternoon, David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, was punching back. Concerning Clinton's charge that Obama is all poetry and no production, he told me, "I don't know where she was when he passed the single biggest ethics reform since Watergate as well as significant arms control legislation. Maybe she wasn't there when he passed the Google bill, which would put the federal budget on line. I know she's not familiar with what he did in Illinois, where he passed legislation on health care reform and death penalty reform. She must be unfamiliar, or there's another possibility: she is willfully distorting the truth." Axelrod said he is expecting more of the same: "She has failed to convince the people of New Hampshire that she should be president. She will spend her time now trying to convince them Barack Obama shouldn't be."
At a Sunday rally in Derry, New Hampshire, Barack Obama, speaking to a large crowd, indirectly replied to Clinton's get-Obama strategy. "Being against something--that's easy," he said, adding, "the reason why people came out in Iowa is because they want to be for something." With new polls showing Obama leading Clinton by up to 13 points, there's not much time for the Clinton campaign's nicks to draw signficant blood. But each day, the attacks (well-founded or not) get sharper. The question is whether they are relevant to the dynamics of the Democratic race--which have been defined so far by Obama's message not Clinton's. As I noted earlier, he's selling vision, she's selling vegetables. Those voters yearning for the former may not be persuadable by the conventional (and occasionally petty) attacks mounted in conventional style by the conventional campaign of Hillary Clinton. Tuesday will show whether Obama's soaring politics of hope can be brought to Earth by Clinton's ground fire. If it cannot be, what else will--or can--she try?