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Obama: It Takes a Knockout

Barack Obama , D-Ill., walks off stage following his news conference at the Ohio State University Medical Center Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP.)

By Alec MacGillis
COLUMBUS -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama fired back at Sen. Hillary Clinton this afternoon, defending campaign mailers she decried earlier in the day, and declaring that, because of her entrenched status in the Democratic Party, it would take her being "knocked out" to drive her out of the race.

In a news conference at an Ohio State University hospital, Obama was asked whether he thought he would be facing more pressure from senior Democrats to concede the race than Clinton now is, had he lost 11 straight contests, as she has. "Yes," he said bluntly. "But look, I'm the challenger, I'm the upstart, I'm the insurgent. She's the champ, she's part of the Democratic network in Washington, and if you're the title holder then you don't lose it on points. You've got to be knocked out."

In fact, Clinton sounded more like the challenger earlier in the day when she told Obama to "meet me in Ohio" and condemned him for two mailers his campaign has sent out there in recent weeks. One attacked Clinton's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and one went after her health care plan for its mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance. The NAFTA mailer states that Clinton had called NAFTA a "boon," though that word was actually used by Newsday to paraphrase her position on NAFTA, and was not spoken directly by Clinton. Her campaign also objected to the assertion in the health care mailer that her plan would force Americans to buy health insurance even if they could not afford it.

Clinton compared the mailers to the work of Karl Rove, and then declared, "Shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public."

Obama appeared unruffled by Clinton's furious challenge, which he said he had not seen on tape. He wondered at the timing of it, noting that the mailers had been out for a week -- well before Clinton had said at Thursday's race that she was "honored" to be running against him. "I'm puzzled by the sudden change in tone," Obama said. "It makes me think there's something tactical about her getting so exercised this morning."

He defended the accuracy of the mailers, though he granted that it was "fair" to question the NAFTA one's assertion that Clinton used the word "boon." Obama said the mailer had been produced before Newsday's clarification that Clinton herself had not used the word, but he stopped short of saying why his campaign had not simply pulled the flier once the misattribution was publicly identified.

Obama added that the overall thrust of the NAFTA mailer still stood, since it was well established that Clinton had been a longtime backer of NAFTA, which was signed by her husband. "Senator Clinton, as part of the Clinton administration, supported NAFTA. In her book she called it one of the administration's successes," he said. "We're pointing that out in a state that's been devastated by trade and is deeply concerned about the position of the candidates on trade."

On the health care mailer, he said it was indisputable that Clinton's plan required people to buy health insurance even if they did not think they could afford it. She may not want the plan described that way, he said, just as he did not like her characterizing his plan, which does not include a mandate, as leaving out 15 million people.

More generally, he suggested that Clinton's outrage today verged on the hypocritical. "We have been subject to constant attack from the Clinton campaign, except when we were down 20 points," he said. "They need to take a look at what they've been doing."

At a health care roundtable at the hospital, Obama had only lightly touched on his differences between himself and Clinton on health care, instead focusing his criticism on the health care proposals of Ariz. Sen. John McCain, which he said were a continuation of Bush administration policies and would fall far short of helping those in need. In the news conference, he declined to comment on recent reports about McCain's involvement with a female lobbyist eight years ago, saying that he had not read the articles closely enough. But he said that voters should generally be concerned about McCain's reliance on federal lobbyists' contributions and the role that lobbyists are playing in advising his campaign.

"He's comfortable with raising money from lobbyists that are currently active in Washington and I think that's a problem," he said. "It is a legitimate issue for voters to ask if someone presents themselves as a reformer and all the guys running your campaign are lobbying on behalf of various special interests and industries."

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 23, 2008; 6:10 PM ET
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