How taking umbrage has become this year's hottest campaign tactic.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 25 2008 6:46 PM

Taking Offense Is the Best Offense

How umbrage has become this year's hottest campaign tactic.

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Hillary Clinton raised money by stirring outrage about a Washington Post story that mentioned her neckline and successfully took advantage of the crass statements by Chris Matthews and David Shuster. She also benefited from spontaneous indignation on her behalf. When Barack Obama said Clinton was "likable enough" before the New Hampshire primary, he may have motivated her female supporters to give him a thumping for being so rude.

But Clinton's umbrage meter may have gotten a little too sensitive as her campaign has struggled. At a press conference in Ohio this weekend, Clinton shook two Obama fliers in her hand and took offense at his distorting attacks. "Shame on you, Barack Obama," she said. "Meet me in Ohio and let us have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign." The fliers, or their like, have been around for a while, and though Clinton is right that they hardly live up to Obama's claims to be offering a new kind of politics, her sudden outrage felt like a stunt. She seemed one click away from asking that they rumble in the parking lot at sundown.

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In the controversy over the Drudge photo, Obama had a perfectly good reason to challenge any story that even hints at the notion that he's a Muslim. He's been dogged for months by false rumors that he is a closet Muslim who doesn't say the pledge of allegiance, sing the national anthem, or eat apple pie. (Obama's campaign has also learned that ignoring Drudge can have a price. Just last week, the Obama campaign was on the defensive when Drudge highlighted quotes from Michelle Obama in which she said she was proud of her country for the first time. Conservatives pounced and Cindy McCain said she had always been proud of her country, taking umbrage for the nation.)

The Obama aides have no evidence other than the Drudge Report that the Clinton campaign was trafficking in this image in order to stir fears about his Muslim connections, but he had reason to be suspicious. One Clinton staffer had to resign in Iowa after trafficking in unfounded rumors about Obama's secret Muslim leanings. A national co-chair had to resign for appearing as if he were trying to push stories about Obama's past drug use.

Just because the Obama camp had reason to be suspicious doesn't mean aides needed to clutch their chest as flamboyantly as they did. The extra measure of acting helped them milk the political benefits. By playing up the picture, the Obama team also makes it look like the Clinton campaign is desperate and will stop at nothing to slow his campaign. The flap created headaches for the Clinton team on a day when Hillary was giving a big foreign-policy speech meant to stress her readiness to be commander in chief. Campaign manager Maggie Williams had to issue a statement and then later explain why that statement didn't include a denial. By the end of the day, the campaign had to issue another press release answering questions related to the whole business. Sometimes taking offense can be the best offense.

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