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Hillary the fighter

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
A Clinton staffer commented several months ago -- before the senator lost her much-vaunted "aura of inevitability" and placed third in the Iowa caucuses -- that she, and in fact the Clintons as a rule, did not make a practice of negative campaigning. Sure, she would defend herself vigorously if attacked, the staffer added, but she would not attack first.

In November, at the Iowa Democratic Party pep rally that was the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Clinton said she and her fellow contenders for the nomination shouldn't be bashing each other, they should instead "turn up the heat" on the Republicans.

But that is so last year.

Fast-forward to 2008. In the weeks since the Super Tuesday contests on February 5, Clinton has lost 11 contests in a row, a reality that would likely have already killed the candidacy of any other politician. Her campaign has responded by going increasingly negative, criticizing Obama for his eloquent use of words -- including those of his friend, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick -- for his apparent decision to back away from a pledge to accept public financing in the general election; for his ties to indicted real estate developer Tony Rezko whose trial begins today; for news that his economic adviser met with Canadian officials and allegedly downplayed the campaign's criticism of NAFTA; and for Obama's failure to hold "substantive" hearings on the issue of NATO in Afghanistan as chair of a Senate subcommittee.

Indeed, the Clinton campaign has just released a negative TV ad that blasts Obama on that last point.

These hits have not gone unanswered. In fact, the Obama camp has often responded with lightning speed, like on Friday when -- within hours -- they rebutted a Clinton ad featuring sleeping children and a ringing telephone that sought to portray her as better prepared to deal with a national security crisis.

All of this is arguably fair game in a tough election fight, especially with so much at stake. But it's hard not to describe it as negative campaigning.

For the record, Clinton generally calls this kind of thing "drawing contrasts" or "drawing distinctions" between her and her competitor. And in doing so, the junior senator from New York has taken to speaking more and more about the importance of being a fighter.

She was joined on stage in Austintown, OH on Sunday by middleweight boxing champion Kelly Pavlik, in part to symbolize her own fighting spirit. "We need someone in the White House again who is a fighter. We need a fighter, a doer and a champion in the White House," she told the crowd. A few hours later at a rally in Akron, she promised to be that kind of president. "I'm here today because I want you to know that I'm a fighter, a doer and a champion and I will go to work for you."

A quick look at some of the highlights from the latest onslaught of bad vibes:

-- Here's Clinton at the GM Lordstown plant in Warren, OH on Valentine's Day: "Over the years, you've heard plenty of promises from plenty of people in plenty of speeches, and some of those speeches were probably pretty good. But speeches don't put food on the table. Speeches don't fill up your tank. Speeches don't fill your prescriptions or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night. That's the difference between me and my Democratic opponent: My opponent makes speeches. I offer solutions... It is one thing to get people excited. I want to empower you. This is not about me. This is about you."
More: "There's a big difference between us: Speeches versus solutions, talk versus action. You know, some people may think words are change, but you and I know better. Words are cheap."

-- A week later at the Austin debate, Clinton sought to highlight Obama's use of a large chunk of a 2006 speech by Patrick, a paragraph the Illinois senator had called up to respond to her Lordstown attack on the power of words. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox."

-- And in Dallas on Saturday, Clinton said, "My opponent, he basically says there are two reasons why he is qualified to be commander in chief. He gave a speech against the Iraq war in 2002 and I give him credit for that. He gave a speech at an anti-war rally. Well, then within two years he had decided that maybe he wasn't sure which way he would have actually voted if he had been a senator and that maybe George Bush wasn't doing such a bad job in Iraq after all ... and then he often cites on his resume the fact that he is the chairman of the subcommittee on European Affairs, which has jurisdiction over NATO, which as you know is our ally in Afghanistan. But he didn't tell you until the debate the other night that he never even held a single substantive hearing to figure out what he could do better."

So much for keeping the heat on the Republicans.

It's understandable that the intense political battle being waged has led to more pointed criticism, attacks, and drawing of contrasts. It may also be true that a fierce competition makes all players better. The question many Democrats are asking is: When will the acrimony end and the healing begin? And it's unclear whether yet another Super Tuesday will provide an answer.