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Battle Lines

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How the GOP might attack if Obama ran for higher office

If Barack Obama does appear on the Democratic national ticket in 2008, the Republicans will be ready to take him on. “There’s no free pass to the nomination, however glamorous [Obama] may be,” says Rich Galen, a former aide to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich turned Republican strategist. (Galen also writes the right-leaning political column mullings.com.)

Galen and other leading Republican insiders say Obama would face a fierce Republican assault asserting that he is too liberal on policy issues and that he hasn’t lived up to his pledge to stay above the partisan fray.

“What made him a rock star,” says Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, “was that—in the U.S. Senate race—he presented himself as someone who is intelligent, who has a good set of values, who was balanced, who was willing to vote more with his conscience than right along strict party lines. I think that’s inconsistent with the U.S. senator, who at times has been partisan for the sake of being partisan.”

For one, McKenna points out that Obama opposed John G. Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court. All 55 Republican senators and 22 Democrats—half the caucus—voted to confirm Roberts. Obama “not only didn’t vote with mainstream America,” McKenna says; “he didn’t even vote with the majority of Democratic senators.”

What’s more, Republicans are likely to question Obama’s commitment to national security because he criticized President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq and called for a time frame to withdraw U.S. troops. (Obama, who was elected to the Senate after the war began, has said he opposed it from the start.)

Mary Matalin, the former White House adviser and prominent Republican strategist, acknowledges that Obama can be “moving and inspiring.” She adds, “But other times he sounds like a Democrat. Platitudes are not happening. Platitudes are yesterday.”

Grover Norquist, president of the influential conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, calls Obama “a standard-issue, liberal Democrat. What’s the difference between Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy on issues? I can’t think of one. He wants to raise your taxes and steal your guns.”

But Scott Reed, the Republican strategist and manager of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, says, “Just throwing the ‘liberal, liberal, liberal’ line at Obama isn’t going to work.” At least for now, says Reed, “Obama is untouchable. He has not made any mistakes. Folks are throwing money at him and his causes. He’s wildly popular.” If he’s vulnerable, says Reed, it’s because he’s too inexperienced to be a presidential contender: “He needs a little more meat on his bones before he can be taken seriously.”

Obama has largely avoided personal controversies throughout his career. Even revelations in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, that he tried marijuana and cocaine as a teenager had no traction among voters in 2004. And GOP operatives don’t think his former drug use would be seriously damaging in a presidential race. “The decision to experiment with drugs is an individual experience that reflects on an individual’s character and judgment,” says McKenna. “But it’s only one that people would look at.” In Obama’s case, McKenna adds: “His solid family life probably rounds out the picture.”

In Illinois, Republicans have tossed a range of charges at Obama: that he was soft on crime; overly solicitous of gay interests; hostile to tax cuts; weak on terrorism. His bumbling Republican opponent in the 2004 U.S. Senate election, Alan Keyes, even hinted that Obama was “evil” for supporting abortion rights and civil unions. Despite the attacks, Obama trounced Keyes 70 percent to 27 percent—the most lopsided victory ever in an Illinois race for the U.S. Senate. But no one suggests that that oddball contest was a dry run for the presidency.
–David Bernstein

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