Election 2008  
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Hey Obama, Mud Fights Might Look Tempting, But Don't Jump in

Barack Obama can’t win wrestling in the mud with Hillary Clinton. That will not put him in the White House.
 
 
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The high anxiety in the Obama circles has thrown the campaign off its game.

Samantha Power, one of Senator Barack Obama's senior foreign policy advisers, had to quit Friday after she lost her cool in an interview with a Scottish newspaper and called Senator Hillary Clinton a "monster."

The campaign apologized for the flap. But Mr. Obama himself seems unsure of how to respond to the trash-and-thrash tactics that helped Senator Clinton defeat him in Ohio and Texas this week.

The anger that caused Ms. Power to blurt out the monster comment is widespread inside the Obama camp. But Senator Obama, for a variety of reasons -- some of them self-imposed -- is sharply constrained in the way that he can respond to provocations.

And if there is one thing the Clinton crowd knows how to do, it's provoke.

On Thursday, Senator Clinton's spokesman, Howard Wolfson, likened Senator Obama to Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor who hounded the Clintons in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Why the Clinton forces would want to inject that poisonous bit of business into the campaign is a mystery.

But there was Mr. Wolfson on Thursday, in response to a call from the Obama campaign for Mrs. Clinton to release her tax returns, asserting: "I, for one, do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for president."

More serious was Senator Clinton's assertion that she was qualified to be commander in chief, and that John McCain had also "certainly" crossed that "threshold," but that the jury was still out on Mr. Obama.

In other words, if a choice on national security had to be made today between Senators Obama and McCain, voters -- according to Mrs. Clinton's logic -- should choose Senator McCain.

That is a low thing for a Democratic presidential candidate to do to a rival in a party primary. Can you imagine John McCain saying that Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney or even the guitar-strumming Mike Huckabee might be less qualified than Hillary Clinton to be commander in chief? It couldn't happen.

But Senator Clinton never gave a second thought to opening the trap door beneath her fellow Democrat.

And then there was Mrs. Clinton on "60 Minutes," being interviewed by Steve Kroft. He had shown a clip on the program of a voter in Ohio who said that he'd heard that Senator Obama didn't know the national anthem, "wouldn't use the Holy Bible," and was a Muslim.

Mr. Kroft asked Senator Clinton if she believed that Senator Obama is a Muslim. In one of the sleaziest moments of the campaign to date, Senator Clinton replied: "No. No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know."

As far as I know.

If she had been asked if she thought President Bush was a Muslim, would her response have included the caveat "as far as I know"? What about Senator McCain? Why, then, with Senator Obama?

In the run-up to the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries, the plan in the Clinton camp, as The Times reported, was to unleash as many lines of attack as possible -- a "kitchen sink" fusillade -- in the hope that something would work. Senator Obama is still trying to figure out how to respond.

Whatever anger and frustration he may be feeling, he should stick to the high road. He can't win wrestling in the mud with Hillary Clinton. That will not put Barack Obama in the White House.

Mr. Obama's strength was his message of hope and healing, the idea that he could bring disparate groups together to work on the nation's toughest problems. That has gotten him this far, which is much further than almost anyone expected.

He now needs an added dimension. He needs to articulate a vision. He needs to spell out to voters where he wants to take this country over the next few years, how he will alleviate the suffering of millions trapped in vicious economic circumstances and what he will do to restore the honor and prestige of the U.S. around the world.

Political campaigns are not about fairness, but they can often be about vision. Voters want more from Senator Obama.

He may not be able to close the deal with, say, working-class whites, but he more than anyone else has the eloquence to try and make a compelling case. He should go for it.

We have seen election after election in which candidates have won by fanning the anxieties of voters. Elect me, or something terrible will happen to you!

That is now the Clinton mantra, which is a measure of how grim our politics have become.

© 2007 The New York Times

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