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Fix Pick: A 'Knife Fight'?

When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president early in 2007, he pledged to do things very differently.

In that address -- delivered in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007 -- Obama decried the "smallness of our politics, the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America."

"The time for that politics is over," Obama added. "It is through. It's time to turn the page right here and right now."

At the time, and for much of the early months of the campaign, many neutral observers suspected that Obama's pledge to do things differently when it came to partisan politics had placed him squarely in a box.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton attacked Obama -- as inevitably happens in politics -- the senator from Illinois seemingly had only two options -- ignore the attack or respond. Ignoring the attack is a guaranteed death wish in politics, as campaign after campaign has shown that a negative charge unanswered persuades many voters. But if Obama chose to respond, he ran the risk of alienating the very people attracted to a campaign that promised to avoid the rancor of partisan politics.

As the campaign wore on, that supposition did not bear itself out. Clinton did attack, but when it happened Obama parried each and every thrust -- insisting that the American people wanted to move on from this sort of politics.

Time after time in debates and on the campaign trail, Obama would rebut a charge from Clinton by politely chiding her for engaging in an old style of politics that no longer resonated with the public. Obama's "I am a rubber you are glue" strategy paid off -- until the Ohio-Texas Two-Step.

In the lead-up to those critical primaries on March 4, Clinton's campaign questioned Obama's readiness to be commander-in-chief and his veracity on the issue of NAFTA. It appeared to work, as Clinton won both states -- thanks is no small part to wide margins over Obama among late deciding voters.

On the morning of March 5, an e-mail arrived in reporters' inboxes from the Obama campaign that called on Clinton to release her tax returns -- a sign that the Obama campaign was going to step up its aggressiveness.

That move is a major mistake, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks in a fascinating, must-read column that frames the dilemma Obama faces better than anything we've read since last Tuesday.

In "Playing by Clinton Rules," Brooks dissects Obama's decision to push back hard thusly: "These attacks are supposed to show that Obama can't be pushed around. But, of course, what it really suggests is that Obama's big theory is bankrupt. You can't really win with the new style of politics. Sooner or later, you have to play by the conventional rules.

"The Obama people seem to have persuaded themselves they can go on the attack, but in the right way. They can be tough and keep their virginity, too. But there are more than five long months between now and the convention."

Brooks adds that by getting down and dirty in a daily exchange of attacks with the Clinton campaign, Obama is, in fact, playing directly into Clinton's hands. "Clinton can't compete on personality but a knife fight is her only real hope of victory," writes Brooks."She has nothing to lose because she never promised to purify America. Her campaign doesn't depend on the enthusiasm of upper-middle-class goo-goos."

For Brooks, any attempt by Obama to play by rules that the Clintons all-but-wrote is a recipe for disaster. A prophet of new politics cannot be seen as playing old style politics, according to Brooks. "New politics is all he's got," he writes. "He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him."

Is Brooks right? Has the box so many people thought Obama trapped himself in at the start of the campaign started to become more and more confining? Or can Obama find a way to draw contrasts with Clinton without appearing to be just another politician?

This will be the debate of the next six weeks of the campaign. Offer your own thoughts in the comments section below.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 11, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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