Starting Gate: Punching Back?

Hillary Clinton spent not an insignificant amount of time telling Democratic primary voters last spring that Barack Obama would not be able to stand up to what she called the "GOP attack machine." Democrats in general have grumbled about the failure of their last presidential candidate to counter-punch for four long years. The result has been rallying cry of "no more Swift Boats."

Behind it all is the sneaking suspicion on both sides that Democrats in general are either unwilling or incompetent when it comes right down to the business of defining the opposition. Call it drawing contrasts or negative attacks, the business of saying unflattering things about your opponent is as old as politics itself. And historically, it's effective.

John McCain's campaign has been embarked on a clear strategy to define Obama for voters who still appear to have some questions about this newcomer to the political stage. Yesterday's "celebrity" ad was the latest in a series of attacks, this one portraying the Democratic candidate as a cultural phenomenon with little to no policy gravitas behind him.

The McCain campaign hammered away at the theme all day yesterday, combining Hillary Clinton's argument about experience vs. hope with the traditional GOP caricature of Democrats as aloof, elitist and out of touch. "Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand 'MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew -- Black Forest Berry Honest Tea' and worry about the price of arugula," McCain manager Rick Davis quipped in a memo.

Having responded to earlier attacks with comments about McCain running a "dishonorable" campaign, the Obama camp launched its own response ad late yesterday, accusing the Republican of "practicing the politics of the past" and reciting a litany of press critiques of McCain's arguments. The Obama ad ends with uplifting images and music overlaying highlights of Obama's energy policies.

It appears that Obama's campaign has decided to hit back against attacks, as they pledged to do throughout the Republicans primaries, while trying to maintain the positive and "hopeful" image they have all-but trademarked. Will it be enough? Remember, when the Clinton campaign ratcheted ups its attacks (like the "3:00am" ad) they were able to score some big victories in key states and leave Obama nearly wheezing across the finish line.

In 2004, John Kerry was faulted for not responding fast enough or furious enough to the Swift Boat ads that some think went a long way toward sinking his campaign. What will Obama's legacy be when it comes to fending off attacks?

Around The Track

  • New polls from Quinnipiac show Obama with slim leads in three huge states. Obama leads McCain in 49% to 42% in Pennsylvania; 46% to 44% in Ohio and 46% to 44% in Florida according to the polls.
  • VoteBoth, an online petition urging Obama to select Hillary Clinton for his running mate, has shut down the AP reports. "Because it seems that Senator Obama has made his decision to offer the slot on the ticket to another candidate, we believe that continuing to ask him to pick Hillary is no longer helpful to our party's chances of winning in November," the founders of the effort say.
  • Despite a new strategy and approach, the McCain campaign finds it's not always easy to keep their candidate on-message, the Washington Post reports.
  • Despite the focus on the economy, Iraq will remain a critical issue this November and both candidates are having problems on that front, writes former Bush adviser Karl Rove. "The conventional wisdom has been that this election will be decided on the economy," he writes. "That will be crucial, but so is Iraq. And it makes perfect sense. We are, after all, a nation at war. And in wartime, electing a president who will win should matter most of all.