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Debates tarnish Obama’s image

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 24, 2008

Last Monday, during the contentious South Carolina Democratic debate, Sen. Barack Obama tarnished his own image as a “new” type of politician – so much so, that only his support from African-Americans rises above double digits over rival Senator Hillary Clinton. Obama continues to fall off message, exposing his inexperience while under intense pressure and scrutiny on the national stage. The political landscape of the past half-century is littered with similarly unsuccessful presidential candidates of both parties who offered a new direction, good intentions and charismatic rhetoric – but failed to win their party’s nominations. Consequently, Obama has drifted away from his original image as an inclusive candidate with high ideals who happens to be an African-American into the more narrowly defined candidate of African-Americans. Unfortunately, voters demand broad appeal rather than a narrowing candidacy, which can be as fatal as being labeled the Haliburton candidate.

Political pundits have consistently mischaracterized Obama’s appeal. In Iowa, they lumped him with former Senator John Edwards as the anti-Clinton change agents. However, it is Edwards, the party’s former vice presidential nominee, and Clinton who are dividing the experience-based vote over Obama’s inexperience. While Obama energized new and independent voters with lofty ideals in early contests, South Carolina is the first “closed” primary of the season in which only Democrats may vote. With more than half of the voters African-American, Obama’s win will be narrowly viewed.

Obama’s back-to-back losses in New Hampshire and Nevada caused his campaign to change tactics, taking their eyes off of the ultimate prize. Desperate for a win, Obama catered to South Carolina’s African-American majority voters, first with his Nevada concession speech (read from a Teleprompter), then with new body gestures and language that make him sound more like a Southern Baptist minister. Voters in other parts of the country can clearly see his transformation away from his original Iowa persona, a demeanor that now dramatically emphasizes the notion that he is just another politician doing what he needs to do for a desperate win.

Obama unwittingly began transforming himself by describing his candidacy to a Nevada editorial board. Comparing his goals with the coalition-building skills of Ronald Reagan was a fair assessment but lacked the wisdom to avoid agitating Democrats unenthusiastic about Reagan. However, when Obama lumped Bill Clinton with Richard Nixon, an effort to contrast and slightly discredit Hillary, he stooped to a personal level by insulting the former president. It is a mystery how Obama cannot comprehend that his remarks were personal and how they surely invited, and drew, a quick response from Bill Clinton.

The Obama campaign has been too sensitive against and too quick to engage the Clintons. First, they accused Hillary of a callous disrespect for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when she suggested that he needed President Lyndon Johnson’s support to achieve the passage of civil and voting rights laws. Then, in a zeal to win the next primary and break his losing streak, Obama himself complained about the former president’s remarks that Obama’s votes for military funding are identical with Hillary’s votes, yet she is accused of supporting the war. Obama has become so rattled by the Clintons that he publicly whined about the former president to Hillary during the debate.

Bill Clinton is demonstrating that in the presidential arena, Obama cannot have it both ways – hurling insults on the one hand, which Obama then decries as the old political way, and rationalizing his personal Clinton slurs as simply laying forth the facts. If other Democrats, like Al Gore or John Kerry, had been standing in Hillary’s place on stage, they would have scolded Obama with, “Well, welcome to the big leagues. Do you naively think Republicans are will be genteel this fall because you invoked Reagan’s name?”

Most importantly though, Obama has been impatient and sounded curt during the debates. This week, he landed a body blow to Clinton by announcing that she served on the Wal-Mart board of directors when he was working as a community activist. The savvy and experienced Clinton returned a roundhouse knockdown when she countered that he had worked for a “slum lord in the inner city of Chicago,” a reference to “Tony” Rezko, an unsavory Obama financial backer, whose contributions of $40,000 this year and another $11,500 in 2006 were given to charities.

Modern history shows that challengers like Obama rarely overcome insider candidates like Clinton in the contest for either party’s presidential nomination. Despite lofty ideals eloquently espoused by charismatic candidates, party faithful of all genders and races routinely reward candidates who are experienced and have earned their rises through the party ranks. Beyond Saturday’s South Carolina primary lies Super Duper Tuesday, a national primary day of 22 states, most open only to Democrats. Immediately following Monday’s debate, Hillary left South Carolina to campaign elsewhere, keeping focused on the prize. For Obama, last Monday’s debate marks a transformation of him and turning point in the campaign where his stature has been diminished.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.