GOP Finesses Line of Attack

Party Shifts Focus to Obama

Posted April 18, 2008 at 6:36pm

Barely six months ago, Senate Republican leaders held a well-choreographed press conference decrying the Democratic majority’s 2007 legislative record and inability to deliver on change. The GOP Senators also used that forum to tease what was becoming an underlying theme of their 2008 message — the candidacy of presidential contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Fast-forward to today, and Senate Republicans find themselves working to rewrite an election-year script to accommodate the protracted Democratic White House primary that’s left Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) still in the hunt. While the Democratic infighting certainly has its advantages for Republicans, minority party lawmakers also acknowledged last week that they have had to widen their target and look for new ways to exploit a lesser-known, and arguably less-polarizing, Obama.

“It’s a whole other chapter,” one senior Republican aide said. Senate Republicans said that like the Democrats, the drawn-out Obama-Clinton contest has forced them to make mid-cycle, tactical corrections. Yet, many GOP Senators say they don’t mind having to rework that offensive strategy as long as their presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), continues to enjoy a pass from the opposing nominee’s attacks.

“It’s made things more complex but not necessarily more problematic,” the senior GOP aide said. “We’re not necessarily changing our strategy, but building on the strategy we already had. We haven’t thrown out the game plan on [Clinton]. We’ve just had to add to it.”

“There are two targets right now,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), adding that in many ways “it’s a good opportunity” for Republicans since the continued Clinton-Obama rivalry has made both candidates “more exposed” and provided the GOP with readymade ammunition for the general election.

“In a lot of ways, it’s nice to have them doing the work for us,” Thune said.

Also, GOP Senators argued that they have the benefit of being able to launch nearly identical attacks against either Obama or Clinton, given the similarities of the Democrats’ proposals on issues such as taxes and spending, national security or health care.

“There are definite differences between the candidates and between the campaigns, but the core issues are the same,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said.

Gregg said the rub for Republicans is that Obama, unlike Clinton, is “new to the process” and in many ways remains a blank slate to the electorate. Even though the Democratic primary is paying political dividends for Republicans, Gregg said “the sooner they get it over with the better it is for us” so the GOP can begin the work of defining Obama.

“If there’s not a nominee until mid-August, we only have two and a half months to explain the differences,” Gregg said.

Senate Republicans had planned on using Clinton as their singular punching bag for the next eight months, salivating over how many in the conservative base view the former first lady. Clinton has long been considered a politically divisive figure, and Republicans believed that as the Democratic nominee she would draw even their most disaffected base voters to the polls.

Responding to a question about the shape of the national political landscape last November, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (RKy.) said the 2008 election “is going to be about Sen. Clinton and where she wants to take America.”

Republican lawmakers had tried on many occasions last year to incorporate Clinton into their political strategy on Capitol Hill, both generally and particularly on issues such as the Iraq War and federal spending. One of the most highly publicized assaults came last October, when Republicans mounted a Conferencewide offensive to poke fun of her support for a $1 million earmark for a Woodstock museum — a move they believed would reinforce GOP contentions that Clinton is too liberal and fiscally irresponsible.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said he believed it was inevitable for the GOP message to shift from the Clinton attacks. Republicans were simply waiting to have a presidential contender of their own to carry the party’s mantle in 2008, saying: “Since McCain became the nominee, it’s been a rallying point for us.”

Senators in both parties readily acknowledge that they play second fiddle during a presidential election season — often only serving as surrogates or echo chambers for their respective nominees. This cycle is no different, though Congressional Democrats still are looking to convince voters to keep them the majority, while Hill Republicans want to try to portray themselves as a better alternative.

Ron Bonjean, a former Senate aide turned consultant who helped coordinate the Republican message in 2007, said now is the time for the GOP to go on the offensive. “Democrats have given Republicans a real opportunity to show Americans how they will run the country differently,” he said.

A Republican strategist agreed, saying the GOP still has some messaging work to do if it hopes to pick up seats in Congress and keep control of the White House in November. This operative said, “Democrats are giving Republicans a valuable gift with a divided primary” but neither Democrats nor Republicans “have an effective message going into the fall.”

“We are relying on the presidential contender to carry our water, and that makes sense, but you have to be careful about relying too heavily on his coattails,” the strategist said. “People want to know who you are and what you are for.”

With that in mind, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the GOP Conference chairman, said Republicans were going to have to revise their 2008 message regardless of the Democrats’ lengthy primary. Calling it “spring training,” Alexander said Republicans are using the first part of this year to get through their mistakes and look to work with McCain to try to advance an agenda of their own.

As one example, Alexander pointed to a press conference last week where Republican Senators unveiled a job-creation plan focused on research and development tax credits and new educational investments.

“The best thing to do now, and what we are doing, is practicing doing a better job of talking about what we’re for,” Alexander said.

“We are always trying to do two things,” he continued. “We want to warn people about the perils of electing our opponents and persuade them that future will be better if we are there.”