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A Negative Turn in a Dangerous Game for Clinton, Obama

Hillary Clinton's campaign is on the offense and playing defense at the same time. (AP).

By Dan Balz
The Democratic presidential campaign took a sharply negative turn over the weekend, led by Hillary Clinton's performance on NBC's "Meet The Press" and by a comment from Robert L. Johnson, one of her most prominent African American supporters, that was widely seen as trying to draw attention to Barack Obama's drug use as a young man.

The Clinton campaign is now playing offense and defense simultaneously -- aggressively challenging Obama on Iraq, his record of accomplishment as a legislator and his readiness to be president, while backpedaling mightily from charges they have deliberately injected race into the Democratic campaign.

That the embattled Clinton team is fighting with every weapon available should be no surprise to anyone. Under-reaction has never been a page in the Clinton playbook. But that this is a dangerous game is just as evident.

The question for the Clintons is whether, having touched off this controversy, they can recalibrate quickly and effectively to avoid being drawn into a protracted argument over their motives or intentions about racial politics. For Obama it is whether he can stand up against the kind of campaign he's never had run against him -- and maintain his image as the candidate who will bring an end to the divisive politics of the past decade.

After Iowa and New Hampshire it was clear that the battle for the nomination would be fierce, with two well-matched and well-funded candidates engaged in a mighty struggle through Feb. 5 and perhaps beyond. What is not yet clear is what damage this may do to the candidates and to the Democratic Party, given the very personal nature of what is now unfolding.

There is a natural tendency to look to history as a guide to the future, but in the 2008 presidential campaign, that is of limited help. After the first two contests on the nominating calendar, neither the Democratic nor the Republican race clearly fits the pattern of past campaigns.

The Democratic race may come closer, at least at first glance. The battle between Clinton and Obama evokes comparisons to a number of past nomination fights in which an establishment front-runner drew a stiff challenge from an insurgent underdog. Mondale-Hart in 1984 is the classic example. Gore-Bradley in 2000 is another.

Certainly Clinton is more like Mondale and Gore, and Obama is more like Hart and Bradley, and on that basis one could argue that Clinton has important advantages heading into the next rounds of primaries and caucuses.

Clinton has stronger support among constituencies that have often made the difference in nomination battles. She does better than Obama with Democratic voters, while he does better with independents. She does better with voters whose incomes are below $50,000, and he does better with those who earn more than $50,000. She does better with voters who have less than a college degree, and he does better with those who have more education.

The new Washington Post-ABC News national poll underscores those divisions. She led by 8 points among Democrats; he led by 13 points among independents. She led by 8 among those earning less than $50,000; he led by 7 among those earning more than $50,000. She led by 4 points among those with less education, while he led by 3 among those with college degrees or advanced degrees.

Her support is among voters who make up a larger share of the Democratic primary electorate -- less educated voters account for close to 70 percent of Democratic electorate, for example -- and that coalition helped Mondale prevail over Hart in their battle of "new ideas" vs. "where's the beef?" Gore, too, drew on those same kinds of voters to block what looked at one point like a serious threat from Bradley.

Other dimensions make this potentially a very different kind of race, however. Both Clinton and Obama are extraordinary candidates in part because each represents a barrier-shattering constituency that could affect the balance in upcoming contests in a way they haven't in past campaigns.

Neither Hart nor Bradley could attract the kind of support among African Americans that Obama is likely to get. The Post-ABC poll showed Obama with the support of 60 percent of African Americans. Mondale saw a considerable part of his black support go to Jesse Jackson in the '84 primaries, but Clinton has a larger worry about losing African Americans to Obama.

If the contest polarizes along racial and gender lines, however, Clinton potentially benefits more from her support among women, who make up more than 50 percent of the Democratic primary-caucus electorate. She now also has an advantage among white voters and particularly among white women. In the Post-ABC News poll, 50 percent of white Democratic women support Clinton while 29 percent support Obama.

Tuesday's debate in Las Vegas will bring these issues out into the open, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards confronting each other for the first time since racial politics became a central part of the Democratic campaign. That engagement will shape the next three critical weeks.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 14, 2008; 1:48 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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