/ 22 January 2008

US candidates switch into negative attack mode

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Tuesday heightened the rancour of their Monday debate by attacking each other’s record and style, bringing what has become a mean-spirited and negative campaign to a new low.

At a hastily arranged press conference in Washington, Clinton accused Obama of desperation after his primary defeats, and of provoking the confrontation in Monday night’s debate — the angriest yet between the Democratic candidates.

”Senator Obama is very frustrated. The events of the last 10 or so days, particularly the outcome in New Hampshire and Nevada, have apparently convinced him to adopt a different strategy. He clearly came last night looking for a fight and he was determined to launch right in,” she said.

Obama hit back immediately. ”I think it’s very clear Senator Clinton … and the [former] president have been spending the last month attacking me in ways that are not accurate,” he told reporters.

But Obama is outnumbered in this fight. The Clintons are running a tag team in their negative attacks on him. While Bill spent Tuesday on the ground in South Carolina, Hillary was in Washington to accuse Obama of failing to back up his records with deeds, before flying off to campaign in California.

Although her husband famously coined the phrase ”the politics of personal destruction” to describe his critics when fighting off impeachment, she dismissed suggestions that the attacks on Obama had gone too far. However, Democrats, including Ted Kennedy, are concerned that the Clintons’ strategy is unbecoming and risks dividing the party along racial lines.

The row moved into the dangerous territory of race when the two sides argued over the legacy of Martin Luther King. In Nevada, the Clintons accused Obama of praising Ronald Reagan, and Obama’s campaigners of intimidating voters.

On Tuesday the row extended to Florida, with Clinton supporters accusing Obama of violating a candidates’ agreement not to campaign there by airing a TV ad.

By Tuesday, the threat posed by the Clintons’ negative campaign was so serious that the Obama campaign launched a ”truth squad” in South Carolina. ”It’s wrong. Everybody knows it’s wrong and it’s got to stop,” Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic majority leader, told reporters. ”It’s going to have a huge effect, a lasting effect if it doesn’t stop soon.”

”It’s not presidential. It’s not in keeping with the image of a former president.”

Clinton also faces a charge she is fleeing the field of Saturday’s South Carolina primary; most of its Democratic voters are African American, a community overwhelmingly behind Obama in Nevada. Clinton, in California, denied she was conceding; she arrives on Tuesday.

On the Republican side, the field narrowed on Tuesday when Fred Thompson, former senator of Tennessee, pulled out. It leaves John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani — plus the maverick Ron Paul.

FAQ: Spin and counter-spin

The Guardian‘ US correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg tests out the accusations that flew during a key part of Monday night’s vitriolic clash:

Clinton: ”You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan and you talked about the ideas…”

What exactly did Obama say?

”I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Obama went on to say: ”The Republican approach has played itself out.” He then immediately said the sentence that the Clintons have used against him. ”I think it is fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there the last 10 or 15 years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.”

Obama: ”You just said that I complimented the Republican ideas. That is not true.”

How did the Clinton camp portray Obama’s comments?

Clinton did not actually refer to Reagan in the debate — as Obama claims — but has commented frequently on his remarks in recent days.

Obama: ”While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”

Is this true?

Yes. In February 1977 — just months after her husband’s election as attorney general of Arkansas — Hillary Clinton joined the Rose law firm, the biggest corporate law firm in the state which represented Wal-Mart, Tyson foods, and the local newspaper. She served on the board of Wal-Mart from 1986 to 1992. The New York Times reported on May 20 2007, quoting fellow board members, that she was silent about the firm’s anti-union stand.

Obama: ”The irony of this is that you provided much more fulsome [sic] praise of Ronald Reagan in a book by Tom Brokaw that’s being published right now, as did — as did Bill Clinton in the past.”

What does the book say?

According to Tom Brokaw, during an appearance on NBC television on January 20, Hillary Clinton told him that she admired how Reagan balanced the interests of the middle class and opposed the Soviet Union. Clinton also told newspaper editors in New Hampshire, when she was seeking their endorsement, that she admired Reagan’s communications skills.

Clinton: ”I was fighting against those ideas when you were practising law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”

Is this true?

Yes. Antoin ”Tony” Rezko was a contributor. Obama did five hours’ legal work for him. Rezko is a Chicago property developer currently facing trial on extortion and money laundering charges. Obama has admitted a friendship with Rezko since 1990, and that Rezko raised between $50 000 and $100 000 for him during his political career. Obama later donated $11 500 of Rezko’s donations to charity. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008