Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Republicans, who have spent years preparing to face Hillary Rodham Clinton, are now switching gears to also aim at Barack Obama — a tougher target.

Political analysts say the Illinois senator’s race, short record and charisma create obstacles for any Republican running against him for the presidency.

“A Barack versus GOP fight is incredibly more difficult and will come down to our candidate’s ability to excite the independent majority — something much easier to do when you are not from the party of George Bush,” said Republican elections strategist Brett Sciotto.

Mrs. Clinton, while tough to beat, at least would fire up the Republican Party base and fuel a conventional, party base-against-base campaign, said Bennet Kelley, a former Democratic National Committee official and founder of the Internet Law Center.

“Obama poses a greater threat to the GOP because he doesn’t provide the same fuel to the GOP base,” Mr. Kelley said.

The Republican Party’s opposition research machinery has been gearing up for four years for what it thought would be a difficult presidential campaign fight between their nominee and a well-known and well-financed Mrs. Clinton. The party’s press operation has been blasting the New York Democrat daily for months now, gleefully documenting her slide in the polls and her denouncing her Senate votes.

After Mr. Obama’s Iowa caucus win last week that shifted, and Republican National Committee attacks now include the first-term senator from Illinois, either alone or together with Mrs. Clinton. Yesterday that included linking Mr. Obama to an Illinois Democratic fundraiser who is on trial for fraud.

Switching tactics and strategy will mean fighting on uncertain terrain.

Just for openers, there’s the race issue. That will not make it any easier for Republicans, who may face charges of racism for any criticism of Mr. Obama, including the most obvious one — his lack of executive experience and relatively meager political experience.

“While it is hard to believe that in this day and age race would even enter a voter’s mind, it is a factor both sides will have to navigate carefully,” said Mr. Sciotto. “For the Republican candidate there may be a small percentage gain on Election Day that results from the unspoken, unacknowledged racism that is still present throughout the nation. I had a difficult time believing this still existed until I ran some campaigns in the South — it is still present, but rarely openly discussed.

“Obama would likely lose votes if he called attention to — or fueled — the notion that something a GOP candidate said was racist,” said Mr. Sciotto. “I think both sides will try to keep it from coming up.”

Another danger for the Republican Party standard-bearer, regardless of who it is, is thinking he can rely on Mr. Obama’s lack of experience to be the deal breaker with voters.

“Some think that Obama is a lightweight, and that voters will not see him as presidential material,” said Republican Party consultant Sal Russo. “The problem is that the same was said in 1960 about John F. Kennedy.”

Mr. Obama, like Mr. Kennedy, has a sparse record as a U.S. senator, “but the public looked beyond Kennedy’s Senate accomplishments in 1960 to a desire for change and new leadership — the same theme that Obama is preaching now,” said Mr. Russo.

Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. “Mike” Duncan said the Republican Party is prepared to get the truth out about whoever Democrats choose.

“Senator Obama has built his campaign around change, the wrong kind of change for America,” Mr. Duncan said. “Raising taxes, increasing government’s role in health care and retreating from the war on terror are not the kind of changes the American people will support.”

Republicans also can leave the early criticism of Mr. Obama mainly to his Democrat rivals.

“One hopes if it’s Obama, Hillary will have planted the seeds of doubt during the primary,” said Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg. “For Republicans to win, voters need to think of Obama as glib and too untested for the Oval Office. Republicans must find a graceful way to make this point. If they are too overbearing, they will be seen as playing the youth card, or the race card.”

But for former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was known as “the Hammer” on Capitol Hill, said Republicans need to start deconstructing Mr. Obama now.

“Somebody from our side needs to start talking about Obama today. He’s a Marxist but a very smart one — he doesn’t let anyone know it,” said Mr. DeLay, who said he wanted to throw his shoe at the television set when the Republican candidates opted not to mention Democrats in their debates.

Events neither party controls may more effectively undermine Mr. Obama more than anything Republicans can do themselves.

“Major crises in foreign policy or national security could erode Obama’s appeal, especially if he responds impetuously, and the Republican nominee, say, John McCain, seems more prudent and thoughtful,” said Mr. Steinberg.

American Conservative Union President David A. Keene, who has backed Mitt Romney for the Republican Party nomination, said Mr. Obama provides a greater upside for Democrats.

“Obama can draw more independents, young people and new voters and conceivably win by a larger margin than Hillary,” Mr. Keene said. “The risk is that he might lose by a much greater margin if he can’t flesh out his message during the general election.”

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