The Democratic presidential race took a nasty turn this week, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama trading personal barbs as both camps girded for a contest that could now extend to the Democratic convention. During a televised debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., ahead of that state’s Jan. 26 primary, Obama remarked that earlier in his career, he was helping laid-off workers in Chicago while Clinton was “a corporate lawyer serving on the board at Wal-Mart.” Clinton shot back with a reference to Obama’s legal work for a “slum landlord” who has contributed to Obama’s campaigns and who was indicted on fraud charges. The candidates also sparred over whether Obama was endorsing “Republican ideas” when he recently praised Ronald Reagan as somebody who had transformed American politics.
The testy exchanges marked a dramatic shift from a debate last week in Nevada, in which Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards largely refrained from personal attacks. Clinton ended up winning the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses by 6 percentage points, but Obama won 13 convention delegates to Clinton’s 12.
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With attention already turning to the 22 contests that will be held on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, candidates were forced to spread themselves thin. Former President Bill Clinton stood in for his wife in South Carolina, where Obama holds a comfortable lead in the polls. Hillary Clinton visited California to court Hispanic voters, considered crucial to victory in that state’s primary on Super Tuesday. Obama made several appearances in Arkansas and Georgia, where black voters could determine the victor.
What the editorials said
The Clintons have, inadvertently, been reminding everyone why so many people dislike them, said The Wall Street Journal. Hillary and/or Bill have been taking turns twisting Obama’s record on everything from his opposition to the war in Iraq to his comments about Reagan. The attacks prompted Obama to pine for “some level of honesty and candor” in the campaign. “Now he knows how the rest of us feel.”
John Edwards isn’t dead yet, but he soon might be, said the Los Angeles Times. After poor showings in New Hampshire and Nevada, he’s counting on support from the Service Employees International Union to claim a victory in his native state. “If he comes up short there, Edwards may well be through for this election.” Democrats also will be left wondering if the unions “can deliver their members” to any candidate.
What the columnists said
Obama and Clinton have fallen into a trap of their party’s making, said Kathleen Parker in the Orlando Sentinel. Clinton and Obama both are Ivy League–educated lawyers; neither can exactly claim to be “a victim.” Yet in the universe of Democratic “identity politics” each represents a victim group. Unavoidably, the white candidate must attack the black one, and the man must attack the woman. But in a culture that defines people by their victimhood, such thrusts are immediately taken as racist or sexist affronts. “The battle for race and gender necessarily has become a fight between race and gender.”
So far, at least, Obama has deftly navigated the identity waters, said Byron York in National Review Online. And that terrifies Republicans. Obama continues to wow blacks and whites alike with his stirring oratory. If, as expected, he wins in South Carolina with overwhelming black support, it will become that much harder for Bill Clinton to “cut his legs out from under him without appearing racist.” Come November, the Republican nominee might find himself sympathizing with the former president.
Obama’s compelling style is undeniable, said Peter S. Canellos in The Boston Globe. But as the focus of the campaign shifts to the faltering economy, substance may start to matter more. Clinton was first out of the gate with a proposed stimulus package, which “buttressed her assertion to be the candidate of substance.” As the campaign heads toward its decisive contests, Obama “would do well to add more bread-and-butter issues to his message.”
Having spent enormous amounts of money in the early contests, the candidates are trying to figure out where to allocate their diminished resources in the weeks ahead. Obama has opted to pour some funds into the first national cable-TV advertising buy of the campaign. The candidates may also buy ad time during the Super Bowl, which will be played two days before Super Tuesday. “It’s a Hail Mary maneuver,” said campaign consultant Evan Tracey, but “the timing has never been more ideal.”
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