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Obama's gloves are off — and they may stay off

Unable once again to score a knockout, Sen. Barack Obama is likely to make his new negative tone even more negative -- with a sharp eye on trying to end the Democratic presidential nomination fight after the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
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Unable once again to score a knockout, Sen. Barack Obama is likely to make his new negative tone even more negative -- with a sharp eye on trying to end the Democratic presidential nomination fight after the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's victory yesterday in Pennsylvania has only accentuated the quandary that Obama faces: Stay negative and he risks undermining the premise of his candidacy. Stay aloof and he underscores Clinton's argument that he will not be able to beat a "Republican attack machine" sure to greet him this summer.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe indicated last night which of those options they would take. "We've done a lot of counterpunching. We've been swift and effective," he said. "For Democrats judging how we're going to perform as the nominee, we have been relentless."

Obama himself took up the cudgel after Clinton delivered a victory speech in Philadelphia devoid of attack lines. Without naming Clinton, he suggested in Evansville, Ind., that she is a captive to the oil, pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies, that she "says and does whatever it takes to win the next election," and that she exploits division for political gain.

"In the end, this election is still our best chance to solve the problems we've been talking about for decades -- as one nation, as one people," Obama said.

Image tarnished?
But the candidate who rocketed to stardom as the embodiment of a new kind of politics -- hopeful, positive and inspiring -- saw his image tarnished in the bruising fight for Pennsylvania. Provoked by Clinton's repeated references to his remarks about the state's voters and her charges that he is an "elitist," Obama struck back in the closing days of the campaign.

"It's a real danger for Obama, and if you look at these recent ads, the messages they're delivering in all these conference calls, it's a far cry from last fall," when the theme of hope emerged amid calls for a more negative tone, said Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton supporter.

Republican strategist John Feehery put it less charitably: "That's the danger of running as holier-than-thou. You have a lot farther to fall."

Late last year, with the Iowa caucuses looming and Clinton maintaining huge leads in national polling, Obama donors and advisers pressured the campaign to begin drawing sharper distinctions with the senator from New York. Its response was to stay positive, but to out-organize Clinton, especially in caucus states where the organizational acumen of senior Obama aides could be put to best use.

The strategy helped Obama build what is still likely to be an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, total states won and popular votes, while his message filled arenas, inspired artists and energized young voters. But that was not enough yesterday to win over the working-class core of the Democratic Party.

In early exit polls, Clinton was carrying white voters by 24 percentage points, union households by 18 points, and voters without college degrees by 16 points -- all that, according to the Clinton campaign, "after the Obama campaign's 'go-for-broke' Pennsylvania strategy, after their avalanche of negative ads, negative mailers and negative attacks against Sen. Clinton, after their record-breaking spending in the state."

‘He's got to be able to respond’
If Obama's image was coarsened in Pennsylvania, the next round of primaries may do it even more damage. But Obama advisers say the campaign is in a far different place than it was last fall. The senator from Illinois is much better known nationally, with an image that will not be easily recast -- either by his opponents or his own tactics.

"Are there some people who might see him as less than the idealistic candidate that he was at the beginning of this process? Certainly," said an Obama adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity last night. "But part of what we are trying to do is confront an effort by his opponents to paint him negatively. At some point, he's got to be able to respond."

In recent days, the Obama campaign has flogged Clinton's exaggerations about a long-ago trip to Bosnia, framed comments she made about activists as her own version of "Bitter-gate," and accused her of tactics reminiscent of Democratic nemesis Karl Rove.

"Senator Clinton has internalized a lot of the strategies and the tactics that have made Washington such a miserable place, where all we do is bicker and all we do is fight," Obama said last weekend.

With Obama clearly favored in North Carolina, even he has called Indiana the "tiebreaker," a state that adjoins Illinois but where Clinton voters hold sway in the working-class towns in the south. In the two weeks leading up to the Indiana primary, a Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign said aides are likely to turn to the controversies of Bill Clinton's White House years -- Hillary Clinton's trading cattle futures, Whitewater and possibly impeachment.

"Everyone knows the history of the Clintons," the strategist said.

Plouffe would not say the campaign planned to address that period, but seemed open to the possibility in the future: "The Republicans certainly are going to look at those issues, the Clinton finances, the record issues. We have chosen not to go there."

Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster, said the onslaught of negativity that saturated Pennsylvania and is likely to wash over the big final primary states of Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon has not registered with many voters. "The presumption is that everyone's paying attention, and they're not," he said.

Taking a toll
But there are signs that the brutal slog is taking a toll. Clear polling leads that Obama once held over Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, have disappeared.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said even before a controversy erupted over Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., focus groups were turning on the candidate. In Tennessee, they criticized him for not wearing an American flag pin on his lapel and his wife, Michelle, for calling the United States "downright mean."

The candidate of hope is morphing into an Ivy League scold, Ayres said -- and Republicans can hardly believe their fortune. With President Bush's approval ratings at record lows, oil prices soaring, housing foreclosures spreading and an unpopular war raging on, the GOP faces what may be the worst political environment since the early 1970s. And, they say, Democrats are making the same mistake now.

"He's George McGovern without the military experience," Ayres said of Obama. And the Clinton campaign will exploit such an attack, as her backers seek to convince superdelegates -- Democratic elected officials and party powers who will decide the nominee -- that Obama is unelectable.

"There's a reason Sen. Obama and his campaign have ratcheted up their year-long assault on Sen. Clinton's character and ended the Pennsylvania campaign with a flurry of harsh negative attacks," a Clinton campaign memo asserted yesterday. "It's because they know that a loss in Pennsylvania will raise troubling questions about his candidacy and his ability to take on John McCain in the general election."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.