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Obama plans sharper tone as party frets

Barack Obama will intensify his assault against John McCain, with new television advertisements and more forceful attacks beginning Friday morning, as he confronts an invigorated GOP ticket.
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama will intensify his assault against Senator John McCain, with new television advertisements and more forceful attacks by the candidate and surrogates beginning Friday morning, as he confronts an invigorated Republican presidential ticket and increasing nervousness in the Democratic ranks.

Mr. McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate and the resulting jolt of energy among Republican voters appear to have caught Mr. Obama and his advisers by surprise and added to concern among some Democrats that the Obama campaign was not pushing back hard enough against Republican attacks in a critical phase of the race.

Some Democrats said Mr. Obama needed to move to seize control of the campaign and to block Mr. McCain from snatching away from him the message that he was the best hope to bring change to Washington.

After back-to-back attack ads by Mr. McCain, including one that misleadingly accused Mr. Obama of endorsing sex education for kindergarten students, the Obama campaign is planning to sharpen attacks on Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin in an effort to counter Mr. McCain’s attempt to present himself as the candidate of change with his choice of Ms. Palin.

New Hampshire speech
The new tone is to be presented in a speech by Mr. Obama in New Hampshire and in television interviews with local stations in five swing states, backed up by new advertisements and appearances across the country by supporters.

In addition, advertising themes will be pay equity for women, an issue that has particular resonance as the campaigns battle for female voters, and a more pointed linking of Mr. McCain to President Bush and Republicans in Washington.

But Mr. Obama’s aides said they were confident with the course of the campaign. They said that, other than making some shifts around the edges, particularly in response to Mr. McCain’s effort to seize the change issue from Mr. Obama, they were not planning any major deviation from a strategy that called for a steady escalation of attacks on Mr. McCain as the race heads toward the debates.

That response is characteristic for a campaign that has presented itself as disciplined and unflappable and is reminiscent of the way Mr. Obama’s campaign reacted a year ago when it came under fire from allies who said it was not being tough enough in going after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We’re sensitive to the fluid dynamics of the campaign, but we have a game plan and a strategy,” said Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe. “We’re familiar with this. And I’m sure between now and Nov. 4 there will be another period of hand-wringing and bed-wetting. It comes with the territory.”

'Message has been disrupted'
Still, Democrats outside the campaign suggested Mr. Obama should be urgently working to regain control of the message.

“The Obama message has been disrupted in the last week,” said Representative Artur Davis, Democrat of Alabama. “It’s a time for Democrats to focus on what the fundamentals are in this election.”

Phil Singer, who was a press secretary for Mrs. Clinton in her primary campaign against Mr. Obama, said, “The Obama people need to reboot and figure out ways to make the McCain-Bush argument newsworthy again.”

The uneasiness among Democrats is the result of a confluence of factors in the week since Mr. McCain accepted his party’s nomination in St. Paul. The selection of Ms. Palin became the defining event of Mr. McCain’s convention, revving up the conservative base and drawing the spotlight away from Mr. Obama.

Mr. McCain’s increasingly aggressive campaign has sought to put Mr. Obama on the defensive in each news cycle, using any development at hand, like Mr. Obama’s colloquial comment this week about putting “lipstick on a pig,” to keep attention away from Democratic messages about the economy and the similarities between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.

And a series of quick polls taken after the Republican convention have suggested that Mr. Obama has lost support among white women and independent voters. Polls taken so close to major political events are notoriously unreliable, but Democrats remember what happened in 2004, when Republicans used the period right after Senator John Kerry’s nomination to undercut him with a series of attacks.

Underestimating the Palin effect
By every indication, Mr. Obama’s aides underestimated the impact that Mr. McCain’s choice of Ms. Palin would have on the race. Mr. Obama and his campaign have seemed flummoxed in trying to figure out how to deal with her. His aides said they were looking to the news media to debunk the image of her as a blue-collar reformer, even as they argued that her power to help Mr. McCain was overstated.

“Everyone was astonished that she drew 9,000 people to Lancaster the other night,” said Mr. Obama’s senior strategist, David Axelrod. “But we drew 10,000 people there last week.”

“They got a transient boost from the sort of imagery surrounding her selection,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But I think things will settle in. She will be a candidate and not just a symbol.”

Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s aides said they had been taken aback by the newfound aggressiveness of the McCain campaign under Steve Schmidt, who has played an increasingly powerful role since last summer. Even as the aides have denounced the tactics as unsavory, they acknowledge that Mr. McCain is running a more effective campaign than he was a month ago.

“They had big problems in their campaign, and they made adjustments,” Mr. Axelrod said.

To a large extent, the perception that Mr. Obama is struggling is based on national polls taken in the days after the convention. But Mr. Obama’s campaign views such measures as irrelevant and focuses on what is going on in the 18 or so swing states.

Mr. Plouffe argued that the attention being paid by national news media outlets to events like Mr. Obama’s lipstick comment was not mirrored in local news coverage. What is more, the Obama campaign has filled the airwaves in some states with advertisements that link Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.

And for all the concern voiced by Democrats to Mr. Obama’s aides that the candidate has not hit Mr. McCain hard enough, he has increasingly assailed Mr. McCain in recent days, mocking his attempt to present himself as an agent of change and denouncing his campaign style as a break from the promise he had made to practice a new kind of politics. Yet, at least on television, Mr. Obama’s critique did not break through the lipstick debate.

No emergency alerts
Inside the campaign headquarters in Chicago, aides said, there have been no emergency conference calls or special strategy sessions to deal with the new dynamic in the race.

Still, interviews with advisers and supporters suggested a concern not seen in the Obama campaign since its most competitive days in the long primary fight with Mrs. Clinton.

“You can’t be so stubborn that you don’t react or adjust to events,” Mr. Plouffe said. “We have been given up for dead any number of times in this process, so it does stiffen your spine a little bit.”

One adjustment for the Obama campaign comes as Mr. McCain is seeking to claim the Democrats’ theme of change by pointing to Ms. Palin. For months, advisers to Mr. Obama had assumed that Mr. McCain would play up his experience; Mr. Plouffe said he welcomed what he argued would be a campaign fought out on the issue of change.

“This is a very major development,” Mr. Plouffe said. “John McCain jettisoned his message and his strategy. It is now about change. We’re going to lean into that very, very hard.”

In the midst of all this, Mr. Obama had a private lunch on Thursday with someone he battled with for much of the year but who knows how to put the Republicans on the defensive: former President Bill Clinton. Discussion topics, aides said, included how Mr. Obama might handle Ms. Palin in the days ahead.

This article, "Obama Plans Sharper Tone as Party Frets," first appeared in The New York Times.