By Ben Goddard - 03/05/08 05:30 PM EST
Was it the ringing phone ad that stopped Barack Obama’s momentum? Probably not — at least not all by itself.
It was a good ad, but not a great one. Originally the spot was credited to Roy Spence, who did a similar, and much better, ad for Walter Mondale in 1984. Then reports surfaced saying the ad was actually written by Mark Penn, the senior strategist and message master of the Clinton campaign. I tend to believe that version, in large part because I think Spence would have done a better job on his own.
The spot gets off to a confusing start with shots of sleeping children who look like they belong in a cough syrup ad.
The copy is too long, the phone rings too many times — surely the White House picks up quicker than that — but it finishes strong with a shot of a determined Hillary Clinton, who is obviously sober, awake and ready to deal with whatever news she hears. Why she is wearing a suit at 3 a.m. is beyond me; it was a strange choice that undermines the credibility of the ad. Still, the message pretty much works.
The Obama campaign’s response was nimble. Their use of footage from her spot showed they didn’t waste time on shooting, they just rushed into an edit bay and put together an ad that could immediately counter hers. Their best decision was to contrast Obama’s judgment in opposing the war in Iraq, recognizing that the real threat was in Afghanistan and throwing the threat of loose nukes into the mix.
The Clinton ad, called “Children” by the campaign and “3AM” by most of the press, was a shot across the bow. It didn’t air enough to really move the electorate, but it sent a clear message that Hillary Clinton was going to get tough on Obama. She began to draw a stark difference in her speeches across Ohio and Texas: She had a lifetime of experience to prepare her for the White House, Sen. John McCain had a lifetime of experience to prepare him for the White House, and Barack Obama had “a speech he delivered in 2002.” She finally found the sound bite that punched home her experience theme.
The Obama campaign ran into a rough patch with news coverage that served to underscore her points. The badly handled response to the story of Obama adviser Austin Goolsbee’s meeting with someone at the Canadian consulate in Chicago raised questions about Obama’s truthfulness and the campaign’s ability to handle a stupid mistake. The coverage of the Tony Rezko corruption trial was a diversion the campaign had to deal with, and didn’t handle all that well. Both added fuel to Hillary’s 3AM message.
The Republicans are gleefully piling on. McCain has been questioning Obama’s preparedness to be president. At times it seems as though he and Clinton are comparing notes. For McCain this is an easy call. Obama’s delegate lead still makes him the favorite to win the nomination, his Democratic opponent is questioning his qualifications, and so McCain adding his voice to Hillary’s just undermines his likely opponent.
The math is clear. There is no way Hillary Clinton can overtake Barack Obama in pledged delegates. But if the two-pronged attack continues it will likely prolong this battle past June 7 and could give superdelegates a rationale for throwing their support behind Hillary.
Obama seems unlikely to change his core message, and he shouldn’t. This is still a change election — in Ohio and Texas exit polls change trumped experience by 20 points. But the rock star phase of this campaign is over. Obama has demonstrated that he can fire up huge crowds, that he can inspire us. Now he needs to focus on his ability to actually lead us to make change from the ground up. Voters need to hear more about his work as a community organizer, as someone who knows how to put people back to work. Voters need to be reminded that McCain will just be more of Bush-Cheney — and that Hillary is part of that experience, as she herself has said. Obama has made those points from time to time, but he hasn’t made them sharply and consistently. He is being forced to fight a two-front war right now, and he should turn that into a virtue: It is us against them. He doesn’t need to get as nasty as Hillary has to make that point, but he does need to make it. If he doesn’t do that, it really may be Hillary Clinton answering that phone at 3 a.m.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.