Campaigns in Pa. shed party blood

Clinton-Obama split could help McCain

Election 2008

April 20, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

RADNOR TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Hillary Clinton says Barack Obama is "a good man, and I respect him greatly." But in her final push for Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, Clinton is portraying her rival in a very different light: as a phony.

She is blanketing the state with an ad attacking Obama's boast, delivered in one of his TV commercials, that he does not accept campaign contributions from oil companies.

"No candidate does," Clinton's ad accurately points out, since corporate donations are against the law, and she goes on to list thousands of dollars in individual contributions to Obama from oil company executives.

Clinton is relentlessly attacking the front-runner as she tries to protect her lead in a state she cannot afford to lose. But the effort has come at a cost to Clinton and, possibly, Obama as well.

Some leading Democratic politicians, mainly Obama supporters, have expressed concern that party divisions are hardening and could make it more difficult to defeat John McCain in November, a sentiment echoed by ordinary voters.

"Chances are, it'll end up being McCain vs. Obama, and she's kind of helping McCain out," said Michael Byrns, 30, a research scientist who took his 4-month-old son to a Clinton rally that drew about a thousand people recently in Northeast Philadelphia.

"It scares me to see Democrats going at each other, even though you expect that to some extent," said Larry Vaksman, 57, who attended a Clinton event in this affluent Philadelphia suburb in hopes of quizzing the candidate about her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.

Voters such as Barbra Shotel, an ardent Clinton supporter, embody the fears of these Democrats. She said that if Obama becomes the nominee, she doesn't know whether she can bring herself to vote for him, based on her concerns about Obama's 20 years as a member of Jeremiah Wright's Southside Chicago church.

"Yes, I could" vote for McCain, said Shotel, a lawyer who gives her age as "of Hillary's generation." She said she has split her ticket in the past and supported Arlen Specter, the state's socially moderate Republican senator.

Clinton, asked by a voter during a town-hall style event in the Radnor High gym about bringing Democrats back together, said she'd "work very hard to have a unified" party in the fall.

National opinion surveys hint at the magnitude of the task. Almost one in three Clinton supporters say they would vote for McCain over Obama, according to the Gallup poll, and about one in five Obama supporters would defect if Clinton is nominated.

Some analysts doubt that the number of defectors will be that large, once the Democratic campaign ends and passions cool. They add that it may not be accurate to attribute potential defections to the sometimes nasty tone of the race and that other factors, including resistance to voting for a woman or an African-American, may be more important factors.

At the same time, Clinton's image has suffered as a result of the long campaign, according to recent public opinion surveys.

An NBC News--Wall Street Journal poll late last month found that, overall, she is viewed more negatively than favorably by voters and that feelings toward her were more negative than at any time since she launched her candidacy.

Paul Johnston, a card-carrying member of the most heavily targeted group of Pennsylvania Democrats - white, working-class men - is among those who've been turned off.

"I don't trust her," said Johnston, 56, of Greensburg, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers who expects to vote for Obama. Clinton's latest attack ad is "mudslinging. I don't like that kind of campaigning."

Clinton's chances of running up her popular vote margin in this week's primary, which her husband has identified as her campaign's top goal, depends at least in part on her ability to plant doubts about Obama among wavering voters.

To that end, Clinton's attack ad, which tries to undermine Obama's image as a different kind of politician, is "very effective," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor who heads the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

"It speaks to the core identity of the opposition candidate, which is what you want an ad to do," she said of Obama's attempt to present himself as one who won't be a tool of Washington lobbyists and special interests.

Winning by a landslide in Pennsylvania, a state where she has family ties and enjoys a number of demographic and practical advantages - including support from the state's governor and the mayors of its two largest cities - would bolster Clinton's claim to be the stronger candidate against McCain.

A longtime analyst of Pennsylvania elections, G. Terry Madonna, says he has been impressed with Clinton's tenacity and how she has turned the contest into a fight about values, rather than issues she highlighted in neighboring Ohio, such as the NAFTA trade deal.

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