Saturday, January 19, 2008

When Attacked, Obama's Now Hitting Back Pt.2

Sen. Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary after attacks from his main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, went largely unanswered,

Clinton's charge questioning Obama's credentials on abortion rights surfaced a month before the Iowa caucuses; she cited Obama's votes of "present," rather than "yes" or "no," on some abortion bills in the Illinois Senate as proof that he is shaky on the issue. The Illinois chapter of the National Organization for Women had criticized the votes, but the Obama campaign pointed to statements by Pam Sutherland, the head of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, saying the "present" votes were part of a strategy to protect legislators in vulnerable districts. Obama has 100 percent ratings from abortion rights groups.

But the mailing in New Hampshire, which stated in bold that Obama was "unwilling to take a stand on choice," arrived much closer to the vote there than in Iowa. His campaign rushed out an automated phone call two days before primary day, but on the final day of the campaign, volunteers reported with dismay that many voters were asking about Obama's stance on abortion rights.

This week, the campaign took a more combative approach. Last Saturday, Obama staffers called Sutherland to ask her to publicly explain the "present" votes. "The facts are the facts -- he helped us with a winning strategy," she said in a conference call with reporters the next day.

Clinton also attacked Obama's position on Social Security in a mailing that went to voters in New Hampshire and Nevada, accusing him of seeking a "trillion dollar tax increase on America's hardworking families." It was a reference to his statements that he would consider addressing Social Security's deficit by raising the $97,500 limit on salaries subject to payroll tax. At times, he has suggested a "doughnut hole" of untaxed salary above the current limit and taxing everything above $200,000.

Obama let the charge go unanswered in New Hampshire. But in Nevada he has offered a defense to his audiences, saying that raising the cap, particularly if limited to those earning more than $200,000, would make the tax more fair to working-class Americans, and noting that Clinton told a voter a few months ago that she was open to the idea. Her principal proposal for addressing Social Security is to restore "fiscal responsibility" and to appoint a study commission.

On Thursday came another Clinton broadside, a radio ad airing in Nevada that charged that Obama is "hip-deep in financial ties" to Chicago-based Exelon, a nuclear plant operator that supports the Yucca Mountain waste site, which is hugely unpopular in this state. Obama got Nevada supporters on the phone to assure reporters of his opposition to the Yucca site, and he rehashed it in his appearances.

In engaging more directly, the Obama campaign has mostly refrained from using its own radio ads or mailings to attack Clinton's record or proposals. A union backing him began running a harshly worded Spanish-language radio ad this week accusing Clinton of suppressing working-class voters because some of her supporters filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging caucus sites at Las Vegas casinos.

But, as the Clinton campaign points out, that does not mean that Obama has avoided attacks altogether -- he weaves them into his comments on the stump and in interviews, where his barbs have grown sharper. In Reno on Friday, he ridiculed an answer Clinton gave during the Las Vegas debate about her support for a 2001 Senate bankruptcy bill that was backed by credit-card companies and strongly opposed by consumer groups. Clinton said she was glad the measure never became law. "Think about that," Obama said. "She voted for it even though she hoped it wouldn't pass."

The crowd favorite was Obama's reenactment of how Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) responded during the debate to a question about their biggest weaknesses. Obama recalled his own answer -- that he is disorganized. "And Senator Edwards says, 'I'm just so passionate about poor people. And helping them.' And then Hillary says, 'My biggest weakness is I'm so impatient about bringing about real change to America.' "

Smiling, Obama added: "This is what I mean. This is political speak. This is what you learn in Washington, from all those years of experience."

Watching the new course Obama has taken, some campaign insiders like to think the New Hampshire loss was not the worst outcome for a candidate who is relatively new to the national stage, compared with Clinton, and followed a relatively easy path to the Senate. Had Obama won in New Hampshire, said one prominent Democrat, he might have become the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, "but he wouldn't be ready for the general election, he wouldn't be ready for the White House."

MacGillis reported from Washington.

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