When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton goes after Sen. Barack Obama these days, she presses him on the details of his health care plan, criticizes the wording of his campaign mailings and likens his promise of change to celestial choirs.
But if Obama becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, he is sure to face an onslaught from Republicans and their allies that will be very different in tone and intensity than what he has faced so far.
In the last few days alone, Sen. John McCain has mocked a statement he made about al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. The Tennessee Republican Party, identifying him with his middle name as Barack Hussein Obama, suggested that his foreign policy would be shaped by people who are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
The Republican National Committee issued a statement Wednesday invoking a questionnaire Obama filled out when running for Senate in 2004 to show that he once opposed cracking down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.. Without using Obama’s name, President Bush used a news conference at the White House on Thursday to assail his willingness to meet Cuba’s new leader, Raul Castro, without preconditions, saying that to do so would grant “great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”
For much of this year, Obama has been handled with relative care by Clinton and the other Democratic candidates before they dropped out. They generally do not have huge policy differences with him, and they have been wary of making a particularly harsh attack that winds up in a Republican television advertisement this fall.
Yet this shifting tone offers a glimpse of the Republican playbook as the party adapts to the prospect that it will be running against Obama rather than Clinton. It is a reminder that should Obama win the nomination, he will be playing on a more treacherous political battleground as his opponents — scouring through his record of votes and statements and his experiences before he entered public life — look for ways to portray him as out-of-step with the nation’s values, challenge his appeal to independent voters and emphasize his lack of experience in foreign policy and national security.
Some of this will almost certainly take the shape of the Internet rumors and whispering campaigns that have popped up against Obama since he got into the race, like the false reports that he is Muslim. Others will no doubt come from the types of shadowy independent committees that have played a big role in campaigns in recent years.
But others will simply draw on Obama’s voting record and speeches, interviews and debate appearances. McCain’s aides said their first line of attack would be portraying him as a liberal, and they have already begun pointing to the National Journal having rated Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate, based on his votes.
Though McCain has vowed repeatedly to wage a tough if respectful campaign — he chastised a conservative talk radio host this week for disparaging Obama and invoking his middle name — his aides have left no doubt they would draw sharp distinctions with him on issues that Clinton has never been able to use.