Obama leaves the attacks to surrogates

Times Staff Writers

“John McCain was wrong,” Joe Biden said, four times in a row. A flip-flopper, Sen. John F. Kerry called the Republican. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer poked fun at McCain’s many houses. A Maryland congressman proclaimed that there was “no greater threat to our national security” than sending the Republican to the White House.

Both McCain and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama have called for a new kind of politics that will erase the partisan divisions of the past. But to win the White House, both have embraced a very old political weapon: negative campaigning.

Except for one difference: Obama is leaving much of the heavy slinging to others in his party -- led by his new, hard-punching chief surrogate, vice presidential nominee Biden.

In part, that’s because the Illinois senator has based his appeal to voters on his persona as a conciliatory “post-partisan.”


Another reason: persuading America to elect its first black president may take a different playbook than a white candidate can use.

“He cannot hit back,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a close friend and advisor to Obama. “He has to keep smiling. No one wants an angry African American man in the White House.”

Obama’s ability to win support from whites and blacks alike has relied in part on distancing himself from the traditional, fiery civil rights leaders -- such as Rep. Jackson’s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- while keeping his tone and rhetoric as even-keeled as possible.

That was easier to do earlier this summer, when Obama held significant leads over McCain in most polls.

Now, however, after an onslaught of Republican attacks, the race has tightened to nearly a dead heat in national surveys and in key battleground states.

Just this week, the GOP celebrated the opposition’s convention by airing biting television ads that featured video clips of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton slamming Obama during their bitter primary campaign. An earlier Republican line of attack painted Obama as a superficial celebrity; the McCain campaign has taken up that theme again as Obama prepares to accept the nomination tonight before more than 75,000 people in a football stadium.

As recently as Tuesday, some leading Democrats were complaining that the convention -- and, by extension, Obama himself -- wasn’t hitting McCain hard enough.

But this week’s events served as a national debut of sorts for the Obama campaign attack machine, even if that machinery is operated mostly by supporters and aides rather than the candidate himself.

It was clear that the campaign has settled on its favorite theme: portraying McCain as out of touch economically and an identical twin to President Bush. Or, put more simply, painting McCain as the candidate of seven homes and four more years.

“We’re going to have a lot of people, myself included, who are going to fight back,” said former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, a close Obama advisor, who specifically cited Biden.

Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, promised that the campaign would hit McCain harder. “I think it’s already started,” he said, referring to the tougher tone of Wednesday’s convention speeches.

Plouffe said the campaign would restrict itself to criticizing McCain’s positions, not his character, and said that distinction would allow Obama to preserve his standing in public as a reformer and unifier.

“It’s always a balance,” he said. Plouffe rejected Jackson’s suggestion that Obama felt inhibited from attacking his opponent because he is black. But he acknowledged that one of the virtues Obama saw in Biden as a running mate was that the Delaware senator attacks with “relish.”

“It lets us double down,” Plouffe said, grinning.

Indeed, at his first appearance as Obama’s choice last week, Biden cheerfully took a shot at McCain, saying the wealthy Republican, unlike most Americans, didn’t have to sit at his kitchen table worrying about family finances. Instead, “he’ll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at,” Biden said.

On Wednesday night, he said he has liked and respected McCain for many years, but disagreed profoundly “with the direction John wants to take this country, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Amtrak to veterans. . . . John thinks that during the Bush years, quote, ‘We’ve made great economic progress.’ I think it’s been abysmal.”

The job of attack dog is a traditional role for a vice presidential nominee. Vice President Dick Cheney did it for Bush in 2000 and 2004, frequently delivering the tougher jabs at the Democratic ticket. But Biden is not the only sharp-tongued surrogate in Obama’s camp.

Kerry, the party’s unsuccessful presidential nominee in 2004, has said he regrets not hitting back when conservatives attacked his war record four years ago, and he has punched hard at McCain too.

“Candidate McCain now supports the wartime tax cuts that Sen. McCain once denounced as immoral,” Kerry said Wednesday in his convention speech. “Candidate McCain criticizes Sen. McCain’s own climate change bill. Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Sen. McCain wrote.”

Even Schweitzer, the otherwise jolly Montana governor who typically despises partisanship, drew roars from delegates Tuesday night when he got personal -- simultaneously ripping McCain for his support of expanded oil drilling and that recent gaffe when he failed to recall how many houses he and his wife own.

“We simply can’t drill our way to energy independence, even if you drilled in all of John McCain’s backyards, including the ones he can’t even remember,” Schweitzer boomed.


Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.