Sunday, February 24, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday unleashed her most forceful criticism of her Democratic rival to date, angrily waving a negative mailer he sent to Ohio voters and blaring: “Shame on you, Barack Obama.”

Mrs. Clinton denounced two of Mr. Obama’s mailers as tactics “right out of Karl Rove’s playbook” and compared the Illinois senator to President Bush.

“Enough with the speeches and the big rallies,” she said in Cincinnati, demanding: “Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics.”

Mr. Obama, indeed, was on his way to Ohio when Mrs. Clinton challenged him to meet her there. But she soon left the state, heading first to New Orleans then to Houston before her planned overnight in Washington — a dizzying schedule that suggests she will fight for every vote despite facing an uphill climb.

They will debate Tuesday in Cleveland, and the Clinton press conference, replayed on TV endlessly on a slow news day, signals she will aggressively battle the new front-runner. She will then head into the March 4 primaries that could be her last stand after 11 straight losses.

Speaking to reporters here, Mr. Obama of Illinois doubted the authenticity of her outrage since the mailers in question have been circulating and weeks ago provoked response from her campaign aides.

“I’m puzzled by the sudden change in tone unless these were just brought to her attention. It makes me think there’s something tactical about her getting so exercised this morning,” he said. “The notion that somehow we’re engaging in nefarious tactics … is pretty hard to swallow.”

Mrs. Clinton, dressed in bright red and vowing she would continue her candidacy, said a voter handed her the mailers on the rope line after a rally and characterized them as “false” attacks that have her “deeply disappointed.”

The mailers — about her position on the North American Free Trade Agreement and her health care plan — underscore two major issues in this state that boasts many blue-collar and union voters.

“We have consistently called him on it. It has been discredited. It is blatantly false, and yet he continues to spend millions of dollars perpetuating falsehoods,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The Obama mailer, sent earlier this month, states, “Mrs. Clinton believes NAFTA was ‘a boon’ for the American economy.” The “boon” quote comes from a graphic that appeared with a September 2006 Newsday story, a word choice the paper has since said should have been clearer, though it stood by its characterization of her position. Newsday also said the Obama ad is “misleading.”

Mrs. Clinton yesterday reiterated her position to “revise and reform NAFTA.”

The health care mailer — at least three weeks old — features a couple sitting at the table that accuses his rival of wanting to “force” families to buy insurance even if they can’t afford it.

“Punishing families who can’t afford health care to begin with just doesn’t make sense,” it states.

Mr. Obama defended the mailers as “accurate,” and added the NAFTA one reached voters before Newsday published the clarification.

Mrs. Clinton supported NAFTA, and considered it was one of her husband’s presidency’s successes, he said, “and we point that out in a state that has been devastated by trade.”

Mr. Obama also noted that Mrs. Clinton months ago started the bitter back-and-forth about the difference between their health care plans — whether to mandate insurance coverage. Hers does, and because his does not, she tells voters he would leave out 15 million people.

The Clinton campaign sent its own negative mailer in Wisconsin, charging his plan “wastes billions” and asking, “Barack Obama, which of these people don’t deserve health care?” over an image of everyday voters.

Mrs. Clinton yesterday said “every Democrat should be outraged” by the Obama mailer because it “not only undermines core Democratic values, but gives aid and comfort to the very special interests and their allies and the Republican Party who are against doing what we want to do for America.”

She also upped her “all talk, no action” criticism of Mr. Obama, comparing his words to those of President Bush.

Mrs. Clinton told voters at a rally in Dayton that the next president entering the Oval Office will see a file folder on the desk labeled “George Bush’s mess” and painted herself as the only candidate ready to get it filed and collated quickly.

She said seven years ago Mr. Bush “talked” about compassionate conservatism, bringing the nation together, helping Americans afford health care and making sure they got retirement benefits.

“People keep talking about change in this election,” she said in a pointed reference to Mr. Obama. “Well, we have lived through some of the worst change that any of us have ever seen in the last seven years.”

“Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me,” she said.

Soon after her remarks, the Obama campaign sent reporters this December Associated Press quote from Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson: “If you want to talk about tactical political maneuvering, it’s about one Democrat comparing another Democrat to George Bush. That’s the worst kind of tactical political maneuvering.”

Mr. Obama seemed amused that his rival said he is attacking her.

“She really liked me when I was 20 points down,” he said at an evening rally in Akron. “She actually compared our campaign to Karl Rove’s. That’s not one I’ve heard before.”

He also quoted Mrs. Clinton saying favorable things about NAFTA in her biography. “She told people [NAFTA] has proved its worth. Those are facts,” he said.

Then he let loose: “You can’t be for something or take credit for an administration and 35 years of experience, and then when you run for president suggest somehow that you didn’t really mean what you said back then. It doesn’t work that way.”

In a roundtable on health care at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus earlier, Mr. Obama said both Democratic plans are “far better than what’s being offered by John McCain — more of the same Bush health care policies that haven’t worked in the past and won’t work today.”

It was Mrs. Clinton’s second trip to Cincinnati and Dayton in a week.

Touring the state with Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, she also said she would be tough on foreign terrorists and hostile nations.

“We need a president who also realizes that we have real enemies. I know it’s true, because I went to ground zero the day after 9/11. We need a president who knows what it takes to protect and defend the United States,” she said.

At his press conference, Mr. Obama was asked if people would be suggesting he concede if he were to have lost 11 elections in a row.

“Yes. … I’m the challenger. I’m the upstart. I’m the insurgent. She’s the champ,” he said. “She’s part of the Democratic network in Washington, and, you know, if you’re the titleholder, then you don’t lose it on points. You’ve got to be knocked out.”

Mr. DeBose was traveling with the Clinton campaign; Ms. Bellantoni with the Obama campaign.

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