Thursday, February 7, 2008

Clinton Campaign: Obama Dodging Debates

In an effort to move past the storyline of the day, which is Hillary Clinton's cash crunch which forced her to loan $5 million to her campaign last month and now has many of her top people working without pay, her chief pollster Mark Penn was on Morning Joe this morning (it was Penn's consulting company which apparently is being paid millions by the Clinton campaign, so maybe that's why Clinton is burning through cash at an alarming rate) and he tried to change the story away from "Hillary is broke" to "Obama is scared to debate."

An old political axiom says you don't challenge your challenger to a debate unless you think you are behind and before Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign challenged Barack Obama to an ambitious series of debates in February, with at least one a week, and sometimes more. Obama, at a press conference yesterday, demurred, saying he was more interested in meeting voters one-on-one instead of in a debate setting, and besides, we've already had 18 debates already, the most of any campaign.

The Clinton campaign strategy, though, is very smart politically on a variety of levels:

1) First, it forces Obama, if he accepts, to take part in debates which Clinton tends to do very well in. Obama is a much better stump speaker than debater (Clinton is opposite and loves and does well in debates) and thus more debates would likely favor Hillary.

2) It forces Obama off the campaign trial. One thing is clear from Super Tuesday and the results of the campaign so far: The more time Obama spends in a state giving speeches, holding rallies, and meeting voters, the better he does. His rallies are inspirational and voters like him the more they see him. As Obama explained yesterday, his biggest problem is voters still don't know him very well. We assume everyone has been paying attention to the campaign, but truth is, people know Hillary Clinton and who she is, what she's done, and what she stands for, but Obama is still a relative unknown to a lot of voters. He needs that one-on-one voter contact to get people in his camp. The longer Clinton can keep Obama off the trial, and in debate prep and traveling to and from debates, the better for her campaign.

3) It allows her, if Obama declines to debate, to paint him as scared and not willing to let the voters compare the candidates directly.

It's a great strategy by the Clinton campaign and it's a tough spot for Obama. He needs that voter contact, and he needs to keep holding rallies and meeting voters in more intimate settings. Debates won't allow that, and spending a day preparing, and another half a day traveling could really throw Obama off his game and play right into the Clinton's hands. But he can't duck all these debate challenges either. It's a tough situation to be in for the Obama campaign.

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