Hillary Clinton’s decisive Pennsylvania primary win last week may have reinvigorated her campaign, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the Republican party.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has purchased $500,000 in anti-Barack Obama ads for use in two upcoming special House elections. The Republican National Committee is flooding reporters with anti-Obama emails. Presumptive nominee John McCain and GOP surrogates have seized on new remarks by Obama’s controversial former pastor.
From top to bottom, from McCain down to the youthful campaign and party staffers who work nearly around the clock to get him elected, the working assumption seems to be that the Democratic contest is over and Obama has won.
Even when Clinton attacks McCain, President Bush or GOP policies, the response is either outright silence or snarky, dismissive ridicule about a failed campaign barely relevant enough to merit a response.
“With ads like that, it’s more likely the call at 3 a.m. is ‘Senator, you just lost another superdelegate,’” quipped McCain adviser Steve Schmidt earlier this month when Clinton aired a version of her “3 a.m.” ad attacking McCain on the economy.
In one revealing glimpse into Republican thinking, when McCain quickly hit back with an ad of his own parroting the genre, he incorporated Barack Obama’s name into the response and spent little money airing it.
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Clinton, it seems, has been erased from the picture, Soviet-style. Republicans mostly act like she doesn’t exist—an unusual turn of events considering her run of big-state victories and the fact that not so long ago Republican campaign plans were predicated on the idea of Clinton as the Democratic nominee.
Indeed, her recent success has only increased the volume and ferocity of the attacks—not on her, but on Obama.
After her Pennsylvania win last week, the RNC did not send a single e-mail focused on Clinton through Monday. At the same time, the committee blasted out 18 that attacked Obama.
When McCain’s campaign last week launched a new morning e-mail to reporters detailing the day’s schedule and drawing attention to preferred stories, they signaled the candidate who has their undivided attention.
Included each day along with critical articles about Obama is the “Audacity Watch,” the smart-alecky rubric under which they take the Illinois senator to task for some public comment or policy position.
There has yet to be any mention of the senator from New York.
Nor did Clinton’s name surface other than in passing in a press release dressed up as a “memo” that was sent out last week by McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. While it ticked off reams of Pennsylvania exit poll data highlighting Obama’s potential vulnerabilities, there was again no discussion of potential Clinton weaknesses.
“Even though Hillary Clinton won this primary, Barack Obama is seen as the front runner among Pennsylvania Democrats and is perceived to be the candidate most likely to win the Democratic Party’s nomination,” Davis explained.
McCain himself has become more aggressive in hitting Obama.
On ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, he raised, unprompted, the Democrat’s views on capital gains taxes and his ties to a member of the radical Weather Underground group. In a conference call with conservative bloggers Friday, McCain responded to a question about words of support a Hamas political adviser had bestowed on Obama by saying it’s “very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States.” He then noted leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s support for Obama, as well.
Sunday, McCain ended his reluctance to go after the Illnois senator over Obama’s controversial pastor by bringing up two new statements made by Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
On Clinton, McCain has said next to nothing of late, including her only in broad critiques that are always twinned with shots at Obama.
“[Obama] is still is clearly the front-runner for the Democratic nomination,” notes GOP strategist Brian Jones, a former top aide on McCain’s campaign. “The math is still clearly in his favor, he leads in fundraising and has the energy in the party behind him. So it makes sense.”
The Republican attacks mirror private disdain for Obama that, while still far from Clinton hatred at its zenith, is rapidly intensifying. The view among McCain aides and other Republicans is that Obama has gotten a free ride from the press despite what they see as a record of little substantive accomplishment.
Despite evidence to the contrary, McCain’s campaign wouldn’t concede that they are concentrating on Obama.
“Sometimes we engage him and sometimes we engage her,” said communications director Jill Hazelbaker. “There is not a distinct strategy to engage Obama.”
RNC communications director Danny Diaz noted that Obama has attracted more scrutiny because he has been more aggressive in his attacks.
“He engages Sen. McCain with much more frequency and has made Sen. McCain’s record part of his standard stump speech,” Diaz said.
The GOP focus on Obama also has a strategic component. His image is not nearly as pronounced as that of the former first lady among most Americans, which necessitates further definition.
“He has a very soft impression, so they’re using this time to define him,” observed Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican operative who recently served as Mitt Romney’s chief spokesman.
More notably, the view of Obama among Republicans has changed.
After much trembling about the threat he could pose, the Republican consensus has dramatically shifted: many are now enthused about the prospect of taking on a candidate they see as fatally flawed.
“The apparatus will be ready for both, but the Barack Obama that a lot of Republican strategists looked at four or five months ago was a lot more formidable than the one stumbling through the last few months,” observed Madden.
The emergence (and re-emergence) of Obama’s pastor, the candidate’s gaffe about small-town America and his seemingly hardening demographic weaknesses have convinced many in the GOP that he would provide the most vivid opportunities for contrast and caricature.
“Clearly there’s a sense that she would be a tougher general election candidate,” said one Republican strategist. “So why do we want to acknowledge her and give her more credibility? Attacking her sends a message to the Democratic electorate. If she’s not the person you want to engage, why would you do that?”
To some degree, Clinton is now seen in conservative circles as a temporary ally who ought not be thrown off stride.
“She’s our best surrogate,” joked Barbara Comstock, a former RNC research director and GOP strategist.
But Comstock, like some other Republicans, also believes it’s risky to give Clinton a free pass.
“Given how volatile this campaign is, we should highlight that both are left of center,” she said. “She and Obama are soul brother and sister on philosophy. And right now you have to fight against the ideology of both of them.”
Noting the photos that surfaced of Bill and Hillary Clinton with Tony Rezko, the image of Jeremiah Wright with Bill Clinton in the White House and the fact that the former president commuted the sentences of some members of the Weather Underground, Comstock said the Obama vulnerabilities could be paired with Clinton.
As for the Clinton campaign, when asked about the Republican silence towad the New York senator, the campaign returned the favor: A spokesman declined to respond for the record.