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New York Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Scranton Cultural Center in Scranton, Pa., on April 21, 2008.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at the Scranton Cultural Center in Scranton, Pa., on April 21, 2008. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama speaks to supporters at the Reading High School in Reading, Pa., April 20, 2008.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama speaks to supporters at the Reading High School in Reading, Pa., April 20, 2008. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Old-school negative ads are worn out: Media consultants say that voters hate those voice-of-doom ads with grainy black-and-white imagery — especially in a primary race, in which the candidates are supposed to be on the same political team.
One solution is to let third-party organizations do the attacking. The American Leadership Project, a pro-Clinton group that aired ads boosting her in Texas, has also been on the air in Pennsylvania with an ad critical of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's plan to overhaul health care.
This created an opening for Obama, who had been somewhat constrained by his own pledge to be the candidate of "change," and by implication, not to go negative. He put up an ad bemoaning Clinton's attacks — while also attacking her health care plan.
Obama's technique has been to run negative ads about negative ads. After a Clinton radio ad cast doubt on Obama's claim that he has not taken money from the oil industry, he responded with this ad, which ends with the message: "Eleventh-hour smears, paid for by lobbyists' money. Isn't that exactly what we need to change?"
Going into the final weekend, the candidates were locked in a competition over who was more negative. But on Monday, 24 hours before the primary, Clinton changed the terms of the debate with this ad. A montage of some of the biggest challenges faced by American presidents — from Pearl Harbor to Osama Bin Laden — is followed by the Harry Truman quote: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." The ad then asks, "Who do you think has what it takes?"
Clinton appears to be sending a double message: "Who do you think has what it takes to be president," but also, in the context of Obama's recent complaints about negative campaigning, "Who do you think has what it takes to beat John McCain in November?"
By Monday afternoon, the Obama campaign had turned around a response; it's such a direct response, it's even titled "He has what it takes."
The ad says Obama does "not use fear and calculation to divide us."
Neither of these final two spots is a stereotypical "negative ad." There are no unflattering photos of the opponent, no dire music. The ads don't even mention the opposing candidate by name. But they don't have to. The message is clear.