03/28/2008 02:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Advice For Hillary: Negative Or Positive?

Before Hillary Clinton took the mike at a Youngstown, Ohio rally last Wednesday, International Association of Machinists leader Thomas Buffenbarger verbally eviscerated Barack Obama in what his staff diplomatically dubbed "a tough speech for tough guys."

"Obama is no Mohammed Ali. He took a walk every time there was a tough vote in the Illinois state senate," Buffenbarger declared. "That's what a shadow boxer does. All the right moves, all the right combinations, all the right footwork --- but he never steps into the ring. He walks away from the fight."

The union president, his voice dripping contempt, escalated the attack. "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust-fund babies crowding in to hear him speak," he said referring to the multitudinous crowds that Obama has been drawing. "This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine. He's a poet, not a fighter."

Buffenbarger's aggressive barking, in the parlance of campaign politics, was the predictable sounds of "a third-party attack dog." The fact that he is a supporter -- but not a campaign employee or strategist -- gives his candidate some old-fashioned plausible deniability. Simply put, Buffenbarger was free to say things that neither the candidate nor her campaign can or would say on the record. The problem for Clinton is that Buffenbarger's distance from the campaign, and the distance of other third party surrogates, makes their attacks less newsworthy.

But with Clinton now lagging in the delegate hunt and in the popular vote, with every trend line running against her, and with Obama still gaining strength as the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries loom less than two weeks away, the pressure on the former First Lady to toss a barrage of grenades at Obama - to "go negative in a big way" -- has only intensified. In the opinion of a number of her backers, she needs to inflict real damage on Obama real soon.

The contemptuous portrayal by the machinist leader of Obama as weak-kneed - a politician who "could act like a friend of the working man even as he danced to the tune dictated by billionaires" - is only one of several fronts in the Clinton campaign's drive to dirty-up her challenger.

Another is the quieter but potentially more deadly effort to persuade the press to do the heavy lifting, with Clinton campaign operatives suggesting stories about 1960s radicals who have backed Obama, and about Obama's acknowledged cocaine use.

A third front is the creation of an "independent" so-called 527 committee, funded by undisclosed rich donors -- the American Leadership Project -- to run pro-Hillary, anti-Obama television commercials, thus lessening the significance of the widening money gap between a surging Obama and a stagnant Clinton.

The consensus among Democratic and Republican strategists interviewed for this article was that whatever she does, Clinton faces an uphill struggle.

Their views varied widely, however, on the kind of strategies that have the best chance of working and those that do not.

"She has very few options left," said Mark McKinnon, a former Democrat who was a high-ranking media consultant in both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. " She should be very aggressive and throw every punch she's got on substance, on record, on experience. She should use third parties, her husband, everybody. March 4 [the date of the Texas and Ohio primaries] is her last stand and she better unload now or she won't have another chance. All that said, I think it may be impossible to slow Obama's momentum at this point."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman was less sure about the effectiveness of such a no-holds barred approach. He noted that "first she has to determine whether going negative in any way is worth it. Can she hold her base in Ohio and Texas without it? The evidence from Wisconsin would certainly indicate what she did there didn't help her."

Indeed, exit polls from last week's Wisconsin primary showed that 54% of Democratic voters thought that Clinton had been unfairly negative in her campaigning.

Mellman added that if Clinton does decide to "draw a contrast, it probably needs to be big, fundamental, principled and narrative -- not petty, harsh, or merely some disconnected fact. Third parties are better sources," he said. "But they (other than President Clinton) won't attract as much attention. It's a tradeoff. If the line of attack is of the kind I outlined, she probably has to drive it herself."

Conservative publicist Craig Shirley called for a take-no-prisoners approach: "She doesn't have a choice. In order to take the village, she will have to destroy it . . . .The nuances of third parties or Bill's role, she is past all that. She has to hit Barack with everything from every angle."

Republican pollster Bill McInturff suggested a more high-minded tone. "If there were any meaningful policy differences," he said. "They should be highlighted. People don't see those as 'negative.' So, like their health care 'difference,' that's fair game."

But, McInturff argued, "the Clinton folks are just stuck, because [she and Obama] are both unbelievably liberal candidates and there are no meaningful issue differences." The result, he said, is a campaign dominated by "ridiculous" accusations of plagiarism or that Obama is reneging on a promise to accept public financing in the general, issues, he said, "that do not move voters and [are] not going to help her at all."

McInturff, who worked for George H. W. Bush in 1992, noted with some pleasure that "having endured the Clinton campaign in 1992, this is very satisfying to watch happen to her now in this campaign."

A Democratic strategist neutral in the presidential campaign advised the former First Lady to try something completely different. Instead of all-out war, why not kill Obama him with kindness? From the chummy tone of Thursday night's televised debate from Texas, it looks like this is the advice she took.