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Clinton's "3 a.m. Phone Call" Ad

UPDATE, 5:55 pm: Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign is now on the air with an ad that directly responds to the "3 am phone call" commercial launched by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in Texas earlier today.

The commercial touts Obama's "judgment and courage" in opposing the Iraq war from the start and his clarity to see that the war distracted the country from rooting out terrorists in Afghanistan. "In a dangerous world, it's judgment that matters," says the ad's narrator.


With just five days left before the critical Ohio and Texas primaries, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton's (N.Y.) campaign is out with a provocative new ad that raises the specter of a future world crisis and asks voters who they would want in the White House if such an event occurred.

Without specifically naming frontrunning rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the TV ad constitutes Clinton's strongest effort yet to try to undermine Democrats' confidence in Obama's experience and ability to handle an international crisis if he is elected president.

Here's the ad, which began running this morning in Texas, and is already drawing comparisons to a similar spot run by Walter Mondale in 1984:

"One of the most important duties of the President is ensuring the safety of the American people," said retired General Wesley Clark of the commercial. "Inevitably, another national security crisis will occur. And when it does, voters shouldn't have to wonder whether their President will be ready. As President, Hillary will be ready to act swiftly and decisively."

Without mentioning Obama in either the ad or in Clark's comments, it's clear that the goal of the spot is to contrast Clinton's "ready on day one" experience with the alleged dearth of experience that the Illinois Senator would bring to the table.

During an appearance this morning at a veterans event in Houston, Obama responded to the Clinton ad. "We've seen these ads before," said Obama, according to the Post's Shailagh Murray. "They're the kind that play on peoples' fears to scare up votes."

On a conference call this morning, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe dismissed the ad as a "shop-worn tactic" and struck back at Clinton in harsh tones. "Senator Clinton has already had her red-phone moment," he said, noting that not only had Clinton voted for the 2002 use-of-force resolution against Iraq but that she also "did not read the National Intelligence Estimate so she didn't do her homework either."

As Obama has done throughout the campaign, Plouffe sought to draw a contrast between Clinton's experience and his candidate's judgment. "This is about what you say when you answer that phone, what kind of judgment you demonstrate," said Plouffe.

In a hastily-organized conference call, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), retired Gen. Tony McPeak, and former U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig defended Obama from the idea that he lacks the experience to respond effectively to a national or international crisis.

"The question is not whether you can wake up at 3 a.m. and answer the phone," said McPeak. "That's pretty easy."

Durbin echoed that sentiment, noting that handling these sorts of crises is more about judgment than experience. "It isn't a matter of just who is picking up the phone," said Durbin. "It's about getting the right answer."

Mark Penn, chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, insisted in a noon conference call, that the "3 a.m." ad was "positive" and designed to remind voters of the stakes in next Tuesday's voting. The ad is a "positive argument about Senator Clinton having the strength, experience and wisdom" to effectively handle an unforeseen international crisis, explained Penn.

"This ad speaks to what people very much know in their heart," Penn added. "When picking a president, this is a very important qualification."

The efficacy of the ad likely lies in the eye of the beholder.

For a Clinton supporter, the ad effectively frames the stakes in next week's votes and the broader fight for the Democratic nomination. Clinton, the campaign argues, is the only candidate running on the Democratic side who has the resume to be ready to handle an international crisis on her first day in office and, as importantly, stand up to Republican attacks on her national security credentials during the campaign this fall.

From an Obama perspective, this ad is rank fear-mongering in the vein of what President George W. Bush did during the 2004 campaign against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Clinton is trying to convince people to vote their fears, not their hopes, goes the Obama argument. Plouffe compared the ad to tactics the Clinton campaign used in advance of the Iowa caucuses in which she placed third. "A lot of their tactics and arguments have been rejected by voters," said Plouffe.

What we don't know is how much of an imprint the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 continue to have on the psyche of the American public. In the 2006 election, Republicans saw their advantages over Democrats on national security issues erode -- the likely result of the ongoing public discontent with the war in Iraq.

But, in a Democratic primary it's tough to analyze how an ad like this one, which directly invokes the possibility of a future crisis, will play. Will it force undecided Democrats to take a hard look at which of the two candidates they want sitting in the White House? And, will that second look accrue to Clinton's benefit? Or will Democratic voters see the ad as in line more with Republican tactics that they want to move past and respond by siding with Obama?

In five days we should have a much better sense of things, but make no mistake: this ad is a gamble for Clinton. If it works, her campaign strategists will look like geniuses; if it doesn't it could well mark the beginning of the end.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 29, 2008; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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