Obama v. Clinton(s): Harsh Words

In the days leading to Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina, the battle between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama has gotten nasty and personal, fueled in part by comments from former President Clinton.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Democratic field of presidential candidates is shrinking. Later today, Congressman Dennis Kucinich is expected to end his campaign.

Three leading candidates go on, and we're going to learn more about them from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton - if you open your newspaper or Web site this morning, you'll find out Hillary Clinton got the endorsement of the New York Times.

LIASSON: Yes, she did. And I suppose if she didn't get the endorsement of her hometown paper that would have been a very big surprise. But it was a strong endorsement. It did include a warning to Mr. Clinton to change the tone of the campaign because the New York Times said it's not good for the country and it could do long-term damage to her candidacy if it continues (unintelligible). Yeah.

INSKEEP: Can I just stop you for a second? You said a warning to Mr. Clinton. That wasn't a (unintelligible).

LIASSON: No. No. I mean Senator Clinton.

INSKEEP: Oh, Senator Clinton.

LIASSON: Well, actually, it was a warning to both of them.

INSKEEP: That's what I'm asking.

LIASSON: It mentioned both Senator Clinton and her husband. And, of course, that is the big news of this week - the way this campaign is being waged.

INSKEEP: Which you mean what?

LIASSON: Well, this week, the campaign has continued to be very heated. The Clintons had to pull a very controversial radio ad, where they mischaracterized an Obama quote about Ronald Reagan. They were called on this several times but they still ran his ad, and what's interesting about this; this is a classic example of what hardball politics is. The Clintons have been making accusations against Barack Obama, some of them have been inaccurate or misleading. They do get fact checked in the newspapers on page 23, but they continue to make them, and the doubts are raised.

Every single day, these attacks on Barack Obama have actually been working. He's been forced into a tactical battle with both Clintons. Every single day that he has to respond to or refute these charges is a day that he can't talk about his own message or give his great, inspiring speech. And he really hasn't figured out a way to kind of fight back against these charges, to rise above them, to use humor or a dare-you-go-again line, to kind of call them on it in a way that is disarming and affective.

And I should also point out that Obama also pulled the radio ad this week, a very tough response ad, saying that Senator Clinton will, quote, "say anything and change nothing."

INSKEEP: What are other Democrats saying about the way that Bill Clinton has weighted into this campaign and attack Obama?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats have been very uncomfortable with the way this campaign is being waged by the Clintons. They're saying that Bill Clinton is tarnishing up his own legacy. However, if he wasn't helping her campaign, if she did not want him to do this, he would stop. This is a strategy.

You know, the Clintons have raised Obama's drug use. A number of surrogates, including Mrs. Clinton's top campaign strategists have raised the issue of Obama's teenage drug use, which he admitted in his book. Then, of course, Senator Clinton gets to call it inappropriate. The Democrats are complaining that they are trying to box Obama in as a black candidate. Bill Clinton, the other day in South Carolina, said, well, both of these candidates are getting votes because of their race or their gender and that's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance to win in South Carolina. In other words, Obama is just the candidate of black voters.

And Democrats are uncomfortable with this because this is what they think the Clintons used to decry - the politics of personal destruction. It's one thing to be swift voted by the Republicans. They don't like it when they see a Democrat doing it to another Democrat.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, could this hurt the Democratic Party in the long run?

LIASSON: Well, Hillary Clinton continues to say they were all going to be unified in the fall. Of course, what she's saying is once she gets the nomination, she expects Barack Obama will be out there campaigning for her. Democrats are nervous about this. They see that this strategy, tactics could backfire, cause a rift in the party. But more importantly, if Senator Clinton is the nominee, it could remind voters of all the things they didn't like about both Senator Clinton and her husband…

INSKEEP: Thanks very much.

LIASSON: …and this will be used against them by the Republicans.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Mara.

This is NPR News.

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