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Strategists argue who’s more negative

Proving that the men who help create the candidates’ messages are good at sticking to them, the chief campaign strategists for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appeared on “Meet the Press” Sunday as the clock ticks down to the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday.

Clinton pollster Geoff Garin, who stepped in to fill Mark Penn’s shoes two weeks ago after the controversial spin doctor was pushed out, got the Clinton campaign message du jour out as soon as he opened his mouth: the political process has to “play through”; the protracted, costly race is “good for the party”; voters are “excited” and feel that it is “better to get it right than to get it done”; and that ultimately, on June 3, when neither Clinton nor Obama has enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination, the process will move up to superdelegates, who will make a final decision.

But Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, countered that while Clinton was entitled to stay in the race as long as she genuinely felt she had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, she was also morally obligated to recognize that it was time step aside “when the strategy becomes ‘we can’t win the nomination so we’re going to tear down Senator Obama and see if we can destroy him in order to advance our own candidacy.’”  

Reiterating campaign trail verbiage recently used by Obama himself, Axelrod called such efforts “the kitchen sink strategy” that would ultimately damage the Democratic Party and serve no one but presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

Touching on the debate last week in which Clinton’s performance was largely praised and Obama’s criticized, Garin fought to project his candidate’s role as crucial to a healthy election process and marred only by mischaracterizations and an unfair playing field.

Garin made a strong showing as a mostly diplomatic and articulate voice to the Clinton campaign, managing to portray his seasoned candidate as being uniquely held to an unfair standard. He used the Sunday talk show appearance to question the consistency of the Obama campaign’s positive messaging, saying, “I honestly don’t think it’s what it [Obama campaign] does.”

“Just this weekend they’re out there with two new negative ads,” said Garin. “I think they held their fourth conference call on Bosnia the other day, where one of their spokespeople said that Senator Clinton lacks ‘the moral authority to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day.’”

Garin did give up some ground (and showed inexperience at times by reading directly from his notes) when pressed by host Tim Russert and Axelrod on past statements by Clinton on Iran and the North American Free Trade Agreement that he couldn’t defend. “I want to be totally honest here,” he told Russert when asked about Clinton’s recent broadly worded comments about an “umbrella of deterrence” against Iran, “I’m helping with her message — I’m not her policy adviser.”

When Axelrod questioned the specifics of where and when Clinton had actually spoken out against NAFTA (as she claimed on the campaign trail in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states where the treaty is unpopular), Garin could only claim that she had opposed the treaty in meetings privately because as a member of the [Bill] Clinton administration, “she had to stand behind it.”

Russert articulated the concerns of many Democratic voters: that the protracted skirmishing of the primary race was giving McCain the time to organize fundraising, win back party dissenters and sway undecided voters.  Garin and Axelrod heartily agreed that Democrats will be united in the fall.

“It may be hard to tell, but David Axelrod is one of my best friends in politics,” Garin said.  “If Barack Obama is the nominee and he asks me to help, I’ll be there in a heartbeat,” adding for good measure, “and if Senator Clinton is the nominee, I know David will be there as well.”