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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Obama is conspicuously silent on Palin

He keeps the focus on McCain, whom he denigrates at every opportunity. Biden also sticks to the script.

September 14, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Even as he mounts unceasing attacks on his Republican rival, Barack Obama is ignoring the person on the ticket who is the center of attention: Sarah Palin.

A few syllables are all Obama expends on the Republican vice presidential nominee. He'll mention "McCain-Palin" when he's on the trail; beyond that, her name is practically taboo.

Last week, Obama rolled out what his campaign billed as a more aggressive persona. And he is indeed denigrating John McCain at every turn. Given his new eagerness to slash at McCain's record, his silence on Palin's is even more conspicuous.

Palin is the focus of a raging national debate over her qualifications for high office.

Twice at a town hall event in Dover, N.H., on Friday, Obama fielded questions that invoked Palin. One man described her as a "feminine version of Dick Cheney and George Bush" and asked Obama why she had garnered so much attention. Obama didn't bite.

He stuck to his talking points, turning back to McCain and repeating the argument that the Arizona senator was a figure from the past, falsely running on a promise to shake up Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 7,000 here Saturday morning, Obama hewed to that theme: "John McCain doesn't get it," he said. "He doesn't know what's going on in your lives. He is out of touch with the American people."

Normally, the Democratic vice presidential nominee might be expected to eviscerate Palin. But Obama's No. 2, Joe Biden, is sticking to the script. When he gets a question about the Alaska governor, he too shifts back to McCain.

Guiding the Obama campaign is a conviction that Palin will either fade or implode.

One aide privately predicted the Palin phenomenon would "go away."

Outside public view, Obama aides are doing what that they can to nudge that process along, steering reporters to unflattering stories about Palin. An Obama aide on Saturday sent out an e-mail highlighting a Boston Globe article that disclosed that Palin, contrary to what the McCain campaign had said, had never visited Iraq.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said Obama was shunning Palin "because she's not the candidate for president."

Democratic operatives offer another reason: Obama doesn't want to give her more publicity. Were he to target Palin, he might detract from the critique of McCain he is trying to drive home every day.

Chris Kofinis, communications director for John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign, said: "Palin right now is the flavor of the week. And the reality is she's going to rise or fall based on how she performs in the public eye. The last thing you want to do as a campaign is to fuel more media attention toward her when you don't need to."

Obama has some practice with this. In May, late in his primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton, he abruptly stopped paying her much attention. Clinton continued to campaign as if she were locked in a fight with Obama; Obama campaigned as if his only opponent was McCain. He began appearing in states that were important in the general election, ignoring the remaining primaries under the assumption that they didn't matter.

His strategy worked.

This time around, though, his supporters, anguished over his disappearing lead in the polls, say they'd like to see Obama show more fight. With Palin dominating news coverage for much of the last two weeks, they'd like to hear what Obama has to say about her qualifications. Or at least a word from Biden.

Walking out of the town hall event in Dover, Joyce Blanchard, 59, of Hampton Falls, said she had hoped to hear more about the dynamics of a race that seems to be turning in McCain's favor.

"I wish he would come out in defense of himself. He needs to stand up," she said. "People want to see that. He could benefit greatly by actually saying something that people want to hear."

--

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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