As her once-formidable lead in national polls dwindles and Barack Obama moves ahead of her in the all-important Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton will likely intensify her negative campaign against her rivals.
The Clintons' political modus operandi has always had a good dose of negative campaigning, especially when the going gets rough. There's no reason to assume that they will alter their game plan now.
I remember Bill's race for re-election as Arkansas governor back in 1990, when he found himself falling behind Hal McCrae, his unknown Democratic primary opponent. After Clinton's 10 years as governor, McCrae's attacks — featuring Dali-esque stretched-out clocks tolling the time for him to go — were hitting home.
Hillary decided to attend McCrae's next press conference and engage him in a public, impromptu debate about his attacks on her husband. She gave as good as she got, and her foray marked the start of a four-week campaign of negative ads that brought McCrae down.
The Clintons used negative ads and attacks in each gubernatorial campaign and, of course, in Bill's two races for president.
Until now, the '08 Democratic contest has been a referendum on Hillary: The basic decision facing voters has been, Would you vote for her? The Clintons need to get people thinking about whether they like her rivals any better.
Negative ads would do the trick but at a price: By attacking an opponent, they'd concede that Hillary isn't inevitable. That would give Obama (or John Edwards, should they decide to aim at him instead) added credibility and perhaps more access to funding and contributions.
Historically, such considerations have never deterred the Clintons, who are always ones to anticipate their adversaries' strength rather than to belittle it.
How will they do it?
Their favored method of getting out negative material about their foes is to hire private investigators to dig up dirt, which they then release through feeds to friendly journalists.
Consider the Lewinsky scandal. When Linda Tripp got to be a danger, the Clinton people released her Pentagon personnel file to Jane Mayer (then a reporter for The New Yorker). A federal judge later reprimanded two Clinton operatives for this violation, and the government had to pay Tripp more than $600,000, but the damage was still done.
Meanwhile, Clinton staffer (and Hillary favorite) Sidney Blumenthal peddled the line that Monica was a stalker. He made the claim to journalist Christopher Hitchens. And White House operatives told ABC News' Linda Douglas of incoming House Speaker Bob Livingstone's infidelity scandal before it was made public.
In the '92 presidential campaign, the Clintons openly disclosed their use of private detectives to dig up ammunition on women who had accused the presidential candidate of having affairs with them, disclosing that they paid detective Richard Palladino over $100,000 in campaign funds. But, of late, they avoid such embarrassing disclosures by hiding their detective bills in their legal expenses.
The likeliest theme of the Clinton attack will be Obama's inexperience. They'll seek to portray him as naive and way over his head in a world of terrorists and threats. But the risk here is that a woman is normally seen as weakest in the military/national security arena, so Hillary might find it difficult to make the issue work for her.
A better choice might be to argue that her political experience (i.e., in defeating the GOP "attack machine") makes her the better candidate for the November election. With the Democrats anxious for victory, using Obama's politeness and gentility against him could be an effective strategy.
She would, in effect, suggest that he is too nice to beat the Republicans — an accusation she can be confident nobody will ever make about her.
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