In mid August 2007, as the Democratic field for president took the stage for the CNN YouTube debate, Senator Hillary Clinton appeared well on her way towards securing the party's nomination. And, befitting her frontrunner status, she avoided the pitfalls of engaging her opponents, choosing instead to champion their collective superiority to the Republicans.
"You know what is great about this is look at this stage and look at the diversity you have here in the Democratic Party," Clinton declared. "Any one of us would be a better president than our current president or the future Republican nominee."
Flash-forward seven months and the senator's tone and focus have clearly changed. Now fighting for her political life, Clinton is running a much sharper, bare-knuckles operation. No longer does she highlight the preeminence of the Democrats. Far from it. Now her campaign is said to be throwing the "kitchen sink" and Tonya Harding's steel rod at her primary opponent. To the scorn of some in the party, Clinton has begun suggesting that Sen. John McCain, not Sen. Barack Obama, is more qualified to be commander-in-chief.
"I think it's imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold," she declared just weeks ago. "I believe that I've done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you'll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy."
As the Democratic primary has evolved well beyond the one-year mark, so too have the personalities of its remaining nominees. Like Clinton, Obama has also grown more biting in his political dialect. From a candidate who pledged to be above the partisan fray his campaign has, on several occasions, made comments that venture well into the personal (see: Samantha Power, monster). As John Heilemann noted in a recent New York Magazine article:
"Rarely a day passes without [Obama's] people dubbing [Clinton] a liar and a fraud. (Although when it comes to Snipergate, it's hard to blame them.) They have accused Bill Clinton of McCarthyism and invoked the infamous blue dress on which he left his, er, DNA--the latter coming on a blog post arguing that he actually makes McCarthy look benign. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the Obamans are actively trying to cede the moral high ground."
And yet, for all the gripping and thinly veiled disgust emanating from the Obama camp, it is Clinton, observers say, who has changed the most. From the candidate destined to win the nomination, she is now, as American Enterprise Institute scholar John Fortier notes, reduced to negotiating her way to the White House by floating the idea of an Obama vice presidency. Her sharper tenor and more pronounced attacks are not implicitly "negative." Rather they are institutionalized responses to dwindling electoral hopes.
"The dynamics of a two way race are fundamentally different than a six or seven way race," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. "In a multi-candidate field, 35 or 38 percent of the vote is a winning vote. In a two-candidate field it is a landslide loss. That explains a large part of the rhetorical dynamic. And obviously, the race has changed as well. It is head-to-head now, and only one of these two is going to survive. And so she needs to make the case against Obama more bluntly."
Indeed, members of Clinton's campaign regularly admit that, since the run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries, they have drawn sharper contrasts with Obama on issues of national security and the economy. And when asked to explain why, on occasion, they tout McCain as a second-most capable remaining candidate (next to Clinton, of course), aides insist there is a line between politics and policy.
"There is a difference between someone who has credentials and experience," Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director said on a recent conference call, "and somebody who is actually offering the right set of strategies to get us out of Iraq, which is what Senator Clinton will do."
Still, observers say, it is telling to see Clinton and her campaign's evolution through the course of the primary. In November, when his wife was ahead of the pack, Bill Clinton was telling Tim Russert: "I don't criticize the other Democrats. I can disagree with them on the issues, but I want to keep our party together."
Last week, he was defending the edginess of a process that Democratic officials worry could tear the party apart. "If a politician doesn't want to get beat up, he shouldn't run for office," he said. "If a football player doesn't want to get tackled or want the risk of an a occasional clip he shouldn't put the pads on."
This is not to say that Obama has been bump free. But according to at least one high-ranking Democratic strategist, Obama is restricted from changing his message in ways that Clinton is not.
"Obama is damned if he attacks and he is damned if he doesn't," said the strategist. "People are assessing him to see if he is up for the election, but every time he engages in a back and forth with Hillary Clinton it chips away at his key message, which is he's above the fray."
And as a result of this restriction, it is Clinton who often appears to take on edgier tones. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 48 percent of Democrats view her as somewhat or very negative versus 37 percent who have a very or somewhat positive perception. Obama's numbers have worsened as well, but he is still viewed positively by 49 percent of voters.
"People are tired, and have been spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on the campaign trail for a week and a half," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic consultant. "We have, possibly, months left in the primary season... so it is not usually or unexpected for the race to get more heated and intense, but there is a price to pay for that. And that is why we see negatives going up for both Clinton and Obama and McCain's popularity rising."
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