Punch, Counterpunch: Obama Has the Upper Hand Over McCain in the Rapid Response War

But if it comes out that he's behind his surrogate's attacks, his carefully constructed image will collapse.

By + More

The two presidential campaigns are entering rapid-response mode. Most recently Sen. Barack Obama lashed out at John McCain's economic adviser, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, for saying Americans are in a "mental recession."

McCain operatives did lash out at Gen. Wesley Clark's comments on CBS' Face the Nation last week denigrating McCain's POW experience (Clark said that it failed to qualify McCain to be president) . As a result, Clark's days as an Obama surrogate are apparently over.

But behind the scenes McCain supporters are frustrated over what they see as Sen. Obama's attempt to have it both ways. They see Obama trying to convince the public he's running a "cleaner than thou" campaign, while using operatives and surrogates to criticize McCain overtly or covertly. Then Obama slams his own people for engaging in sleazy tactics.

Case in point: It didn't get much press when Bill Clinton a few days ago made a disparaging point about former POWs aimed pretty clearly at Republican presumptive nominee McCain, as recounted by The Atlantic ' s Jeffrey Goldberg:

Bill Clinton is speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he said just now, apropos of almost nothing (actually, during a long peroration on Nelson Mandela): "Every living soul on this planet has some highly-justified anger. Everyone. If you know anybody who was a POW for any time, they can be going on for years and all of a sudden something will happen that will trigger all those bad memories."

Is Clinton now acting as an Obama surrogate? Stranger things have happened.

One close friend to and long time political ally of McCain expressed frustration to me about the McCain campaign's decision to avoid firing back at Clinton for those remarks. Why the lack of response? The campaign decided to "stay on message."

Bill Clinton's now-infamous War Room and George W. Bush's savvy rapid response team are proof that quick, deft, take-out strikes to counter nasty comments by surrogates are a critical element of a successful presidential run. John Kerry's campaign stands as equally powerful proof that failure to strike back (as in the Swift Boat attacks) can doom a candidate.

In the current rapid response war, Obama seems to have the upper hand. But if it is proved that he or his top advisers encourage camouflaged strikes at McCain and then feign disapproval, Obama stands to destroy his very carefully constructed squeaky-clean image.