Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
(Sun new media intern Jenna Kohler contributed to this report.)
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- Sheila Leslie, Nevada assemblywoman, talks about Barack Obama's opinion on education for minorities
After wearing helmets while riding in tanks and being for things before being against them, the party of the late response and the lame attack ad has learned how to do politics this election.
Democratic presidential candidates, having split victories in New Hampshire and Iowa, are using every tactic available here in Nevada.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a story it wanted to tell this week, so it turned to a friendly blogger. Taylor Marsh, who in the past has been paid by a union now backing Clinton, quickly ran with the story: Members of the Culinary Union were being intimidated to vote for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whom the union endorsed last week.
Under scrutiny, the story didn’t exactly pan out. But no matter.
Thursday, the Clinton campaign put out a statement expressing “concern” about “news reports” of “voter intimidation” -- media reports that were the campaign’s own doing and all came back to Marsh, as well as a Sun report that questioned the story.
Obama supporters aren’t flinching, because they, too, are playing rough. Obama’s newest supporter, the parent of the Culinary Union, UNITE HERE, is running ads on Spanish-language radio that say, “Hillary Clinton does not respect our people,” which seems a bit hard to believe, especially given the support of people such as Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, and Raul Yzaguirre, former president of the National Council of La Raza.
Democrats now taking sides in this increasingly contentious contest can take solace in one point: No matter who wins the nomination, the leading contenders have learned from the Republicans, aped their tactics, and won’t be caught unaware by a GOP onslaught come November.
The contest in Nevada has featured disingenuous advertising, attacks based on flimsy evidence, faux-outraged surrogates and the pitching of insubstantial stories to reporters.
Former Sen. John Edwards, with fewer resources, is less able to engage, but Obama and Clinton are fully engrossed in this style of politics.
Because of their different campaign themes and messages (Clinton: tough and experienced fighter; Obama: fresh-faced uniter), they have taken different approaches. But the result is the same: This isn’t beanbag.
“The Clintons understand cutthroat politics from A to Z, and they’re willing to use the whole alphabet,” said Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore, political scientist and an expert in Democratic politics.
Schaller noted that the Obama campaign has its own roster of up-and-coming jugular hunters.
David Lublin, an American University political scientist, noted the “pious” atmosphere of Iowa, which has been apotheosized by press and politicos alike. No longer in the sanctified confines of those states, Schaller mused, the candidates may feel freer to take shots.
Obama is somewhat hindered, however, Schaller noted.
“They boxed themselves in as the ‘Go clean’ candidate. No good political deed goes unpunished,” Schaller said.
In other words, Obama’s positive message of unity doesn’t allow him to engage in the elbow-throwing that has been the staple of winning presidential campaigns in recent decades.
That hasn’t prevented his surrogates, his union supporters or his staff from doing dirty work out of Obama’s view.
So, for instance, an Obama press aide in South Carolina, -- where as many as half of Democratic primary voters are black, compiled a dossier of clumsy and inflammatory statements coming from Clinton supporters on Obama’s race.
Obama then called for peace. Clinton followed up with a similar statement -- no doubt aware she was being tainted in a voter bloc she needs.
Obama disowned his staff’s tactics, as if he was unaware of what was happening in his own campaign.
The whole episode came across as Obama as noble peacemaker, even though the underhandedness of it was fairly transparent.
By using surrogates to make attacks, Obama remains above the fray. So state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, hosted a conference call Thursday and said, “The Clinton attacks on Barack Obama’s record are dishonest and frankly offensive to Nevadans.”
For her part, Clinton explicitly campaigns as the candidate who has taken the beating from the Republicans and will happily hit back. She has called this part of the campaign “fun.”
Her campaign has borrowed liberally from the Republican playbook. In one mail piece, even the substance of the attack has a Republican feel: Obama wants to raise your taxes.
The charge of Culinary Union “voter intimidation” echoes an accusation long made by Republican foes of organized labor, who say union bosses scare up votes from members.
President Clinton, probably the most talented political mind of his generation, has learned this from President Bush’s longtime political aide Karl Rove: Turn the opponent’s presumed strength into a weakness.
So the former president has questioned Obama’s anti-war credentials, even though Obama made a speech in 2002 expressing his opposition as Hillary Clinton was voting to give Bush authorization to invade Iraq.
Is it working? Hard to say.
Rick Perlstein, a liberal historian who wrote an authoritative account of the rise of Barry Goldwater, “Before the Storm,” said the Democratic coalition is different from Republicans’ and may not countenance these attacks.
Perlstein, who’s working on a book about the dirty tricksters of the Richard Nixon era, echoed the comments of a Republican operative when he said, “If the Republicans are the pros at tough politics, the Democrats aren’t even the junior varsity.”