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Will Clinton's Obama Attacks Backfire?

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(L. to R.): Keith Bedford / Atlaspress; Jim Cole / AP

Correction Appended: December 11, 2007

It started in earnest a couple of weeks ago when Hillary Clinton questioned how much Barack Obama's time spent living in Indonesia as a child could actually help him make foreign policy decisions as a commander-in-chief. "Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next President will face," Clinton said November 20 in Shenandoah, Iowa. "I think we need a President with more experience than that."

Then Clinton announced in an interview with CBS that she was sick of being a punching bag for Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and that she intended to fight back. "After you have been attacked as often as I have from several of my opponents, you cannot just absorb it. You have to respond," she said.

Since that declaration Clinton has done just that, attacking Obama's plans for health care, Social Security reform and diplomacy with Iran. She even went so far as to dig up a kindergarten essay of Obama's entitled "I Want to Be President" to accuse him of lying about not having a lifelong lust for the Oval Office. "So you decide which makes more sense: Entrust our country to someone who is ready on day one ... or to put America in the hands of someone with little national or international experience, who started running for president the day he arrived in the U.S. Senate," Clinton said in Iowa Monday. But at a time when two new Iowa polls show Obama actually pulling into the lead and Clinton losing support among women, some political observers are wondering if Clinton will come to regret her newly assertive strategy. She already has the highest negative ratings in the race, and the shift in tactics comes only a month before the Iowa caucus — where voters are famous for their distaste of negative campaigning. Launching the attacks herself, rather than with via surrogates, only makes the move even riskier.

"The attack will backfire in two ways: it will reinforce the negative stereotype of Mrs. Clinton as a cold and calculating person who will do whatever it takes to win," said Stephen J. Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University and author of The Road to the White House. "And two, it will make Mr. Obama seem to be the less shrill and more emotionally mature candidate."

John Norris, who ran Senator John Kerry's Iowa campaign in 2004 and now serves as an adviser to Obama's campaign, said that's what they were banking on. "Barack positioned himself as drawing distinctions with Hillary," Norris said in an interview. "You don't want to get too negative — he's come close to the line but I don't think he's gone over it with Iowa voters." Clinton is "the one who made it personal by calling him na´ve — that was the first personal attack in the campaign," Norris said. "It's not a good position to be in — being forced to go negative in the last month."

The Obama campaign has started a website which almost gleefully tracks all of Clinton's attacks. And in an e-mail sent to supporters Monday asking for donations, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe cited the Des Moines Register poll that also showed Clinton with the highest negatives of any candidate. "And sure enough, less than 12 hours after the poll results were released, the Clinton campaign launched multiple frantic, baseless attacks against Barack Obama," Plouffe wrote, calling for 10,000 people to donate over the next 48 hours in response. "The emerging pattern is disturbing: as Senator Clinton's poll numbers slide, the campaign of 'inevitability' becomes more desperate and negative by the day. Barack will always respond swiftly and forcefully with the truth when attacked."

Negative campaigning has not had a history of success in Iowa. In 2004 Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean committed what some described as "murder-suicide" with their attacks on each other, opening the door for Kerry. In 1984 John Glenn's attacks on Walter Mondale helped to land Gary Hart a surprisingly strong second place showing, which helped lead to his upset of Mondale in New Hampshire. The person who could stand to gain the most this time from the negative attacks is John Edwards. His campaign, which hasn't been shy about attacking Clinton in recent months, has remained remarkably silent in recent days. "Edwards has been a pretty harsh critic of the Clinton campaign himself, so one could argue that when everybody goes negative no one gains from it," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who is remaining neutral this cycle.

Clinton has insisted that her attacks against Obama are substantive, not personal. "There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Clinton told reporters traveling this past weekend with her in Iowa aboard the first press plane of Clinton's campaign. That difference, she said, is "between someone who talks the talk, and somebody who's walked the walk." Asked directly whether she intended to raise questions about Obama's character, she replied: "It's beginning to look a lot like that. You know, it really is." (When asked if former President Bill Clinton would also be stepping up the heat on Obama or Edwards, Clinton spokesman Mo Eilleithee would say only, "I think you'll see him out there talking about his knowledge of her, because no one knows her better.")

Clinton's harsh new rhetoric has not won much support, either from pundits or other Democrats. "I could see the desire to raise the salience of personal traits — because her strengths are experience and strength of character," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at MIT and author of the book Going Negative. "But her choice surprised me — she might be emphasizing the wrong thing. Given how close this is in the polls, especially a month out, this might be a very risky strategy for her."

"This series of slurs doesn't serve HRC well," said Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, in a blog post. "It will turn off voters in Iowa, as in the rest of the country. If she's worried her polls are dropping, this is not the way to build them back up."

Perhaps the biggest downside to Clinton's negative attacks is that the press seems to be focusing on nothing else, at least for the moment. "What's tough about the stories from this weekend is that they're telegraphing — they're more about going negative than the substance of the attacks," Simmons said. "It underlines the case that Edwards and Obama have been making that she's practicing politics as usual." And for Clinton, that kind of an association could be the costliest negative of all.

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale in the 1988 Iowa Caucuses. In fact, the two ran against each other in 1984, and Hart came in second to Mondale in Iowa.