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Obama, Clinton exchange attacks

Harsh turn of tone as Pa. primary nears

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / April 21, 2008

READING, Pa. - Barack Obama yesterday portrayed Hillary Clinton as a practitioner of the cynical politics Republicans once used to attack her, imploring supporters to "declare independence from the type of politics we've seen over the last 15, 20 years."

In nearby Bethlehem, Clinton declared that Obama was running scared after a debate last week that had an intense focus on personal controversies involving him. "It's no wonder my opponent has been so negative these last few days," she said.

The exchange highlighted a sharp negative turn in the Democratic presidential campaign before tomorrow's primary in Pennsylvania, where some recent polls have shown Clinton's lead shrinking to single digits.

Obama's weekend tour of Pennsylvania was filled with new laments about "petty, trivial, slash-and-burn, tit-for-tat politics," as he never missed a chance to show his listeners how miserable elections - and particularly this state's primary - can be.

"You've been watching this campaign for a couple weeks, at least here in Pennsylvania, and let's face it, it's not pretty," Obama said Saturday.

Even as Obama campaign officials play down their chances of winning Pennsylvania - asserting that anything less than a double-digit Clinton victory would be a triumph for the candidate - his confrontational posture in the race's closing days suggests a newly adventurous strategy.

Such a strategy poses a risk. "When you throw mud against the wall, some of the mud splatters back on you," said Neil Oxman, a Democratic media consultant in Philadelphia. But assuming that risk carries potential benefits for Obama, according to analysts. A flurry of accusations and name-calling in the race's closing hours could alienate the late-deciding voters who have turned to Clinton in previous contests and keep them from participating altogether.

"He knows that Hillary's unfavorables go up every time this thing goes negative," said Ken Smukler, a Democratic strategist not working for a candidate. "It keeps undecided voters home, it fires up your own base."

The candidates raced across the state yesterday, trying to cover as many public events as possible. Clinton's stops included Abington, Bethlehem, Johnstown, and University Park. Obama appeared in Reading, Lebanon, Scranton, Bethlehem, and Robesonia.

Obama's rhetoric, which he said yesterday amounted to a "closing argument," came amid a hostile exchange of ads and mailings between the two camps over their healthcare plans and ties to lobbyists. For once, the language coming from both candidates on the campaign trail appeared to be more aggressive than that of their ads.

"What's unusual is that the candidates are doing their own negative, they're not taking the high ground," Oxman said.

On the stump, both Obama and Clinton made the case that the other bore more responsibility for the most toxic atmosphere to develop yet in the Democratic nominating race by practicing Republican-style politics. "He always says in his speeches that he is running a positive campaign, but then his campaign does the opposite," Clinton said Saturday.

Yesterday, at an event at high school in Reading, Obama addressed Clinton from afar. "You learned the wrong lessons from those Republicans who were going after you in the same way using the same tactics all those years. I don't want us to become like them. I want us to change the country."

Clinton, in Bethlehem, responded in kind. "He has sent out mailers, he has run ads, misrepresenting what I have proposed," Clinton said. "I really regret that because the last thing we need is to have somebody spending as much money as he has downgrading universal healthcare."

Undecided voters consistently have constituted about 10 percent of voters in a variety of recent polls, according to strategists. A survey released yesterday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed Clinton leading Obama statewide by 5 percentage points, 48 to 43.

Obama's new willingness to risk his own favorability with voters in future contests by lodging attacks could be a sign that his campaign, which has set spending records in the state, sees a chance to win, according to one strategist.

"I don't think you're going to see a big change between now and Tuesday," said Ed Mitchell, a consultant in Wilkes-Barre. "He wants to put her away here because he knows that if he beats her in Pennsylvania it's probably over."

Even if he does not manage to win, catalyzing voter cynicism about the election could diminish what many expect to be a record statewide turnout that Clinton would need to assemble a popular-vote total capable of eliminating Obama's national advantage.

Obama's strategy is predicated on the depth of enthusiasm he finds in the southeastern corner of the state, where he has been bolstered by large numbers of recently registered voters, and the gamble that Obama's supporters are unlikely to abandon him now even if he embraces an aggressiveness not seen as his natural style.

On Friday in Philadelphia, Obama demonstrated the strength of that base by drawing 35,000 people to a rally at Independence Hall, the largest crowd of his candidacy, according to estimates supplied by the campaign. It was evidence, according to an aide, of voter-contact efforts in the city that have been fully focused on mobilizing identified supporters.

"This is not a persuasion election," said Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, an Obama backer. "This is a turnout election."

With a focus on galvanizing his base in the Philadelphia area, where the Post-Gazette poll showed him ahead by 5 percentage points, the genteel imagery of Obama's leisurely train tour Saturday through the Pennsylvania countryside was belied by a newly fierce critique of Clinton.

"Over these last few days, we want people to really understand the choice that's there," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director.

The Illinois senator grew feistier over the course of the day as his train chugged westward from the prosperous Philadelphia suburbs into the largely rural middle of the state, where Clinton already leads Obama by double digits and the Post-Gazette poll showed the greatest number of voters still undecided. "She's trying to force-feed us cynicism," Obama said in Harrisburg, his last stop on the tour.

Those still undecided "are going to break exactly like their demographics break," said Oxman, suggesting as an example that late-deciding working-class women will probably end up with Clinton.

The new ads from both candidates, which contain a collection of self-referencing charges and counter-charges, may be coming too late to change voters' minds and may be insufficiently vicious to keep them from going to the polls.

"It's laughable how non-negative these spots are. These ads are nothing compared to the negative ads that Pennsylvanians usually see," said Oxman, who said recently with uncommon pride that "you rip people's faces off in this state."

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