Clinton Will Close On Electability, Readies Contrast Ads Obama

Inexperience and Unelectability it is.

The Clinton campaign has settled on its final argument against Barack Obama, and is using two new national polls to kick start an aggressive campaign in the national media designed to raise questions about his competence and experience.

In a variety of conference calls over the next few days, in surrogate appearances, and in memos distributed to reporters, the campaign will directly challenge Obama on points of his resume, on past statements of his, on the details of his current policy plans, and on his campaign's pushback that it is Clinton who is not electable. By significant margins, Democrats believe that Clinton is the most electable Democrat and that she will win the nomination, and that she has the requisite experience to be president.

The Clinton campaign wants to spread the idea that Obama would be crushed in a general election by a Republican nominee who is more experienced and more glib than he is. They're prepared to question his credentials from Obama;'s right and left, pointing today, for example, to a 1996 report that he favored registering hand guns.

Campaign aides have said that Obama's support for retroactivity in drug sentences would kill him with tough-on-crime white independents. But the Supreme Court, in a 7 to 2 decision yesterday that included Antonin Scalia, endorsed the view that judges could ignore sentencing guidelines when handing down prison terms for distributing crack versus powder cocaine, and a Bush administration panel today voted seven to nothing to impose retroactivity.

From the left, the campaign is readying contrast ads to be used against Barack Obama; they take on his health care plan and use quotations from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to question why Obama is using "Republican" talking points on the issue. No decision has been made to run the ads, campaign sources said. General details about the campaign's ad plans and several other points in this here post were first reported by the Associated Press.

The approach carries risk. Polls show that Clinton is judged to be running the most negative campaign of all the Democrats, and if voters come to perceive her campaign as being in attack mode, her own favorability ratings could suffer.

But the upside is obvious. In 2004, Iowa voters swung towards John Kerry during the final month after he presented himself as the candidate best able to take on President Bush, and as Howard Dean repeatedly and publicly committed unforced errors that raised concerns about his own viability.

With 23 days to go, Clinton needs to move now. Already, some advisers to Bill Clinton are speaking to reporters in hushed tones about what they see as strategic miscues by the current Hillary Clinton leadership team.

Bill Clinton himself is "concerned," one adviser said, but knows that his wife has complete confidence in her choices. And, truth be told, none of the mistakes that have hurt Clinton in Iowa have had anything to do with senior management. Much of Barack Obama's recent success is attributable to Obama himself and his campaign's formidable Iowa field organization, which was developed by state director Paul Tewes. The Obama campaign regularly attracts more than 70 Iowans to its mock caucuses, a figure suggesting that Obama's support is wide and deep.

Of most concern to Clinton's team is the notion that her support has topped out in Iowa and that few undecided Iowans will break her way. That's led them to recalibrate the way they describe her path to the nomination to reporters. Right now, the campaign emphasizes her strength in New Hampshire and its penchant for judging candidates independently of Iowa. (No word on yet on what the Clinton campaign thinks of the new WMUR/CNN poll.)

Clinton has two challenges in Iowa: she cannot let Barack Obama beat her -- the campaign would much rather lose to John Edwards. But she cannot come in third, unless the margins separating all three top candidates are really close.

Both the Obama and Edwards campaigns believe that an Iowa loss would be a severe psychological blow to Clinton's chances in more respects than one. Voters on the fence about Clinton -- and Clintonism -- would feel less dissonance about voting against her if they saw their peers in Iowa force her to third place.