Should Obama Play Rougher?

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Darren Cummings / AP

Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in New Albany, Indiana, April 23 2008.

In the wake of his bruising loss in the Pennsylvania primary, Barack Obama once again faces questions about his toughness and willingness to play politics the old-fashioned way in response to Hillary Clinton's attacks. But even though Obama is under pressure to start throwing more punches, there's little evidence his campaign is heeding it.

In fact, the Obama campaign took pains to strike a positive note a day after Obama's nearly 10-point loss in Pennsylvania, which some pundits attributed to the negative tone of campaigning between the Illinois Senator and Clinton in the weeks ahead of the Keystone primary. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe vehemently disavowed a Washington Post report Wednesday that they intended to go heavily negative following the loss in Pennsylvania—dredging up old sores such as former President Bill Clinton's impeachment and the Whitewater scandal. "We are not going to talk about those issues in the campaign and won't," Plouffe said. Asked repeatedly by reporters on a conference call if the increasingly divisive race could harm the party, Plouffe only emphasized what he called the "silver lining" of a drawn-out primary season: "a far, far better organization in the battleground states than any nominee in history."

Obama himself avoided nearly all mention of Clinton in a town hall meeting Wednesday in New Albany, Indiana, referring to her only once by name to underline to the audience the important choice that lies ahead: Indiana and North Carolina are the next states to vote on May 6. In contrast, Obama's speeches over the weekend—his closing arguments in Pennsylvania—were lengthy and sometimes harsh explanations of the differences between the two.

At every turn in his campaign Obama has faced pressure to attack Clinton—pressure he has usually avoided until Pennsylvania. Throughout the long summer, when Clinton was viewed as the inevitable Democratic nominee, Obama supporters pushed him to go on the offensive. Instead, he held his tongue, stressed his theme of change and a new kind of politics, and managed to pull out a stunning victory in Iowa. Even as the campaign has dragged on and gotten increasingly heated, Obama rarely attacks first. He took more than a week, for example, to hit Clinton after her chief strategist Mark Penn resigned following revelations that he had helped the Colombia government lobby for passage of a free trade deal Clinton opposed. "It's a double-edged sword for him. He's supposed to be new and different, and when he runs negative ads people say what's new and different about this?" said Congressman Jason Altmire, an undecided superdelegate from western Pennsylvania whose district went 66% for Clinton.

But that doesn't mean Obama is standing pat. "Senator Clinton has been trying a lot of different approaches and a lot of different criticism. This is sort of the kitchen sink strategy," Obama told reporters in New Albany, Indiana, Wednesday after a town hall meeting. "And you know, I know that people like to talk tough and use a lot of rhetoric about fighting and obliterating and all that stuff. You know that I have always believed that if you are tough you don't have to talk about it."

After ABC's much criticized debate last week, Clinton began attacking Obama for complaining (as did much of the media) that the questions focused heavily on gaffes and gotcha politics. In a commercial aired last weekend, over images of Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, the 1929 stock market crash, the Cuban Missile crisis and Osama bin Laden, Clinton reprised Harry Truman's famous line, "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen." In response, Obama was as forceful as he has ever been in the campaign, but some observers wonder if his show of toughness came too late. Even though 66% of voters thought Clinton had attacked unfairly, late-deciding voters broke 59% for her, according to exit polls.

Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign manager and a still-undecided superdelegate, believes the attacks—both Clinton's and the GOP's—are aimed at painting Obama into the stereotypical angry black man. "First he wasn't black enough, then too black because of Rev. Wright," said Brazile, who is African American. "They want a rise out of him, and that will ultimately destroy his candidacy, that will make him the angry black male.

"Obama must create a new movement and he must create a whole new choir and in his new choir he's the conductor and they are inspired by hope," Brazile continued. "They are not looking to hear that angry jocular masculine tone that we're accustomed to in American politics. He should not hit an angry note. It's not what the choir will listen to."

Obama recognizes his essential dilemma— that when it comes to going negative, he is damned if he does and damned if doesn't. Still, he said on Wednesday, voters "are not looking for politicians to be calling each other names and acting with a lot of bluster. That's been the politics we have had for the last 20 years. They are looking for somebody who is tough enough to stand up to the political tides when it is the right thing to do. That is the kind of toughness I have shown for my entire career and public life."

Brenda Woods, 58, a public relations consultant from New Albany, said she left Obama's town hall meeting on Wednesday "a believer." Woods said she's glad the race has gone on as long as it has because it led her to Obama. "I first supported John Edwards and when he dropped out I backed Hillary," said Woods, wearing a pink shirt with "Ya'll" scrawled on the pocket. "In the beginning I don't think his message really resounded. But then Clinton, she has slowly been chipping away my support; she's done everything I hoped she wouldn't. She went there with her attacks. I started leaning towards Obama and today sealed the deal." For Obama, the test will be if enough people like Woods will reward him for resisting the growing pressure to go negative.