In politics, a quick and opposite reaction

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When an article mildly critical of Barack Obama appeared in a California newspaper this week, his presidential campaign fired back swiftly with a four-page, point-by-point refutation.

Several days later, a former supporter's disparaging remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton prompted an almost instantaneous counter-assault by her campaign, sparking the first real brawl of the presidential contest.

Most Americans might be ignoring the early skirmishing, but rapid-response techniques are propelling the 2008 race, with unpredictable consequences for contenders in both parties, strategists said yesterday.

"It's a recognition of a viral information age, in which any attack or criticism that is ignored, or that you don't respond to quickly, calcifies as fact," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "That's the dynamic that's driving all this."

Some insiders wonder whether rapid response might be getting out of hand, with the campaigns running hot so early that they risk turning voters off - or sending them to other candidates who manage to keep out of the fray.

"To me, the question is, can they all sustain this velocity for another year?" said Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton supporter, of the intense early activity. Elmendorf was a top adviser to Richard A. Gephardt's campaign in 2004, when a fierce battle between Gephardt and Howard Dean provided an opening for John Kerry to grab the nomination.

Wide-open contests in both parties are fueling the intense competition for early advantage. So far, most of the back-and-forth has been on the Democratic side, where memories of the "swiftboating" of Kerry are vivid reminders about what can happen if a candidate fails to respond effectively to an attack and allows the opposition to define him in unflattering terms.

"People know that the Clintons know how to fight back. That's the difference here," Howard Wolfson, the Clinton communications director, said Wednesday evening on MSNBC's Hardball, after alluding to the party's 2000 and 2004 election defeats.

The Clinton campaign "war room" of 1992 is often seen as the genesis of a rapid-response culture that turned campaign tactics into a governing style, regardless of which party is in power. Recent revelations in the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff showed in detail how the Bush White House used campaign-style attacks to strike back against critics of its Iraq policy.

The backlash

Several presidential candidates are already attempting to appeal to voters who say they are tired of attacks.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has incorporated a demand for a non-aggression pact among the Democratic aspirants into his stump speech. And it was Obama, trying to position himself as a new and different Democrat, whose call for an end to "slash-and-burn politics" became the focus of this week's Clinton campaign response.

Democrats, including some in the New York senator's camp, said her campaign overreacted and came off looking thin-skinned after highly critical comments that a wealthy Obama supporter and fundraiser, David Geffen, made to a New York Times columnist.

Clinton's campaign spokesman, Wolfson, e-mailed a news release on the morning the column appeared, protesting the "vicious" personal attack and demanding that Obama live up to his image as a positive campaigner by cutting his ties to Geffen and returning money raised by the entertainment mogul. Wolfson later made cable and broadcast TV appearances to amplify the point.

Another Clinton spokesman, Phil Singer, defended the initial response yesterday and said Clinton was the one being attacked, not the instigator of the exchange.

"These were smears that we're not going to tolerate," he said.

Clinton, in her only public comments, seemed to distance herself from the exchange, refusing to say whether Obama should denounce his supporter, as her campaign had called on him to do.

However, the episode had the effect of giving wider circulation to criticisms by Geffen, who has been estranged from the Clintons for years and helped raise $1.3 million for Obama in Beverly Hills on Tuesday. In an echo of warnings made privately by some party insiders, Geffen implied that the former president's behavior could hurt his wife's chances, calling him "a reckless guy."

Draws attention

Similarly, an Obama campaign response helped give added attention to a Los Angeles Times report that questioned the Illinois senator's portrayal of his activities as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. According to the Feb. 19 article, critics said Obama unfairly left out the contributions of others in a successful fight for an asbestos cleanup at a low-income housing project, an event that he described in his 1994 best-seller, Dreams from My Father, and that was featured on CBS' 60 Minutes this month.

As soon as the article appeared, the Obama campaign e-mailed an extensive response to reporters that included testimonials from some of those involved, recently collected by the campaign in an effort to blunt the impact of the story.

Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, said the campaign "has got to make sure that the attacks circulated in public dialogue are accurate." He added that the Obama camp had moved beyond the dustup with Clinton, calling it "yesterday's news."

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said that calibrating a response in a way that refutes a charge without giving undue attention to damaging information is an "instinctive, intuitive" art.

He added that the exchange with Clinton's campaign underscored the challenge Obama faces in trying to compete in the rapid-response campaign world without undercutting his image as a different kind of politician.

"If you are going to be the transformative candidate, the processes of your campaign have to be equally transformative," said Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House for six years but is not active in the '08 campaign.

He said Obama's campaign had mishandled the Geffen remarks when it responded to the Clinton attack by stating that the "Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when [he] was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom."

That line had the effect of putting "President Clinton front and center in this debate," said Lehane, adding that Clinton "is as popular with Democratic primary voters as Cal Ripken is with Baltimore Oriole fans."

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