Video: Scoring the Clinton-Obama fight

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updated 1/23/2008 1:44:38 PM ET 2008-01-23T18:44:38
ON THE TRAIL

A much more aggressive Barack Obama has emerged post-Iowa and New Hampshire. Frustrated by the Clinton campaign tactics, Obama came into the Jan. 21 debate in South Carolina ready to hit back. But by engaging with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama risks turning into the very thing he says he's been running against: the petty, politics-as-usual candidate.

So, what explains Obama's change in behavior? One of the unexpected (yet not unsurprising) side effects of the pushed-up primary calendar: the exhaustion factor. Even the most disciplined candidates, strategists and reporters are no match for the physical, psychological and emotional grind that this unpredictable campaign season has wrought. Most strategists never thought the campaign would last this long -- or still be running at such an intense level.

Could Obama's stepped-up attacks simply be the mark of a candidate and a staff unaccustomed to the toll the campaign was taking on their internal resources? Despite the mythology that even the smallest decisions on a campaign are planned out, poll-driven and vetted, the reality is that many are made in the heat of the moment.

This is not to say, however, that Obama has been uniquely affected by the pressure. Already, we've seen just how emotionally raw the candidates, staff and those covering them have become. Whether it was Clinton choking up in New Hampshire or AP reporter Glenn Johnson's spat with Mitt Romney, it's clear that the non-stop, 24/7 intensity is taking its toll. Passion may also explain why some staff members in the Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee campaigns are willing to work without pay. Ask yourself: Would you be willing to forgo your paycheck and still do your job? For many, the campaign is not simply a profession, it's an all-consuming existence.

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Rate candidates' positionsBut to blame the newly snappish tone simply on exhaustion -- or a candidate's thin skin -- isn't fair either. The Obama campaign is smart enough to know that to simply sit on the sidelines and try to remain above the fray wasn't going to cut it. With earlier hopes of riding momentum from Iowa into the nomination dashed, the Obama camp is now girding for a long-haul campaign.

This kind of environment, of course, is where Clinton thrives. The grind-it-out, day-in-day-out battle for every news cycle is her campaign's specialty. It comes with the obvious risk of spotlighting her unappealing side; namely, the perception that she'll do whatever it takes to win. But looking like a "typical politician" is much less risky for Clinton than it is for Obama. With Clinton, people know (or think they know) what they're getting.

For Obama, engaging in the back-and-forth may only serve to turn off the very people he needs to win: non-traditional voters attracted to his message of hope and inspiration. Most of the big states participating in Super Tuesday -- like California and Missouri -- have open contests, meaning that they aren't limited only to registered Democrats.

Plus, if Obama is going to fight back, he's got to be better armed to protect his weakest flanks. It is surprising that this late in the game, the Obama campaign hasn't come up with a better (i.e., more understandable) explanation for his many "present" votes in the Illinois state Senate. It seems that the more he tries to explain them, the more he sounds, again, like the kind of politician he says he doesn't want to be.

Even so, the Clinton campaign still risks underestimating the frustration that voters, even those who rate her positively, have with "politics as usual." The more disorganized and weak the Republican field looks, the less incentive Democratic voters may have to stick with the candidate who boasts of her years of surviving the GOP's firing squad.

Traditionally, Clinton's approach to campaigning has been the most successful. Candidates who define the race on their own terms, coalesce their own bases and push their opponents away win. But if this cycle has offered a lesson thus far, it's that the past is no longer prelude and relying on well-worn campaign truisms is very dangerous.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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