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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Duelling Memos - Clinton vs. Obama

Darn - I don't have time to do this justice right now, but it is just too fascinating to let it wait.

Short version (and telling you what you probably already know), a major split has developed since Saturday between Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and closest rivals Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) over the former's insistence that she will continue to accept campaign contributions from persons registered as lobbyists at the federal level, while the latter decline to do so. Edwards and Obama both need a way to set themselves apart from Clinton, and they are both indicating a willingness to jump on this distinction for that purpose. There are lots of ways of looking at this issue, and all of them bear further thought (such as, is it really contributions from lobbyists themselves, as opposed to contributions from others that they solicit or bundle, that make a difference; is it true, as suggested in the new Roger Moore movie Sicko, that contributions from the health care industry to Clinton have muted her advocacy for universal health care covereage; is it too simplistic to equate lobbyists in general with "special interests," since lobbyists advocate for so many different causes and groups; is it counterproductive to cripple fundraising on behalf of Democratic candidates, since one of them must eventually compete with a Republican adversary who will welcome contributions from all sources). However, the immediate result of this new, more confrontational atmosphere is the release yesterday of a memo from the Clinton camp, and a responding memo from the Obama camp, that together shed a great deal of light on the two candidates and their respective strategic thinking.

The Clinton memo, written by strategist Mark Penn, relies heavily on recent national polling showing her pulling ahead of her Democratic rivals and performing better against Republicans in head-to-head matchups, and portrays her as "the candidate of experience and change, a combination no other candidate can match." The notions that Clinton can't win in November or that voters don't want another Clinton in the White House are likewise addressed by referring to polls, in this case showing that New Hampshire and Iowa voters regard Clinton as the most likely Democrat to win the Democratic elections, and a national poll indicating that most respondents are positive or neutral about the fact of her being the spouse of the former president. Penn attributes Clinton's polling to increasing voter confidence that she is "steady and sure-footed" and that she can be a president who can "end this war [in Iraq] responsibly and yet continue to defend America's security."

The much longer Obama memo, written by David Plouffe and released immediately after the Clinton memo, dismisses national polls as "irrelevant and wildly inconsistent" and instead argues that Obama's success in attracting a legion of small donors (as against Clinton's larger amounts from fewer donors) shows an "enthusiasm gap" that will result in a surge for Obama in the early primary states going into January and February. Plouffe also argues that Obama has a superior organization on the ground and more momentum. The Obama strategy is to "focus like a laser on the early states to create the momentum crucial to later contests," and to position Obama as the candidate of "change versus more of the same." As to polling, Plouffe points to Iowa polling that shows Obama tied with Clinton and Edwards, and that a larger number of likely caucus goers seek change and a new direction rather than strength and experience. The memo also stresses polls and pundits indicating that Obama performed well in debates and does better than Clinton in head-to-head matchups in the fall.

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