MANCHESTER -- Republicans have spent years gearing up for an epic battle against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race, but as Barack Obama gains momentum in the Democratic nomination fight, they are scrambling to come up with a new strategy for the general election.
With Republicans bitterly divided and facing a difficult electoral environment, the prospect of another Clinton presidency had been seen as the one development that had the potential to unify the party. In a general election, her high negatives and role in the scandals of the 1990s would be major liability, and in a change election year, Clinton is the Democrat who would make the least convincing argument for change.
But in Obama the Democrats have found a fresh face without Clinton's baggage, who even opponents acknowledge is charismatic and likable. His victory in Iowa has made "change" the buzzword in both parties.
In debates and campaign appearances in New Hampshire over the weekend, Republicans who have spent the past year arguing over who would be the best candidate to beat Clinton, are now directing their criticisms toward Obama.
At a town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, on Saturday, Mitt Romney tried to make the case that his years in the private sector and as governor of Massachusetts demonstrated he had the "capacity to bring change," but the response of the crowd said a lot about the difficulties ahead for the GOP should Obama get the nomination.
When Romney said, "we cannot afford to have Barack Obama as the next president" -- a standard applause line in Republican audiences when the name is Hillary Clinton -- virtually nobody cheered.
POLLSTER FRANK LUNTZ, who said he still believes Clinton is the favorite for the Democratic nomination because of her strength in the Super Tuesday states, doesn't like the GOP's chances in the general election if Obama beats her.
"They'll screw it up, I know it," Luntz said at Manchester's Palace Theater on Sunday morning, where Obama was speaking to a characteristically packed house. "If Obama's the nominee, they'll screw it up because they'll treat him like any other politician. You cannot do that. He is unlike anything we've seen since Bobby Kennedy. You have to treat him in kid gloves, and you have to do an experience versus novice [contrast]. The problem with the GOP is that it has no subtlety whatsoever."
During the ABC debate on Saturday, Republicans were asked to make the case against Obama being president, and they drew an ideological contrast.
"Well, Senator Obama has adopted the position of every liberal interest group in this country as best I can tell; all the major ones, the NEA and everyone who's stepped forth with a position paper on these issues," Fred Thompson said. "His positions are very liberal positions."
Rudy Giuliani, in addition to pointing out policy differences, noted Obama's lack of executive experience.
In Milford on Sunday, the New Hampshire Republican Party gathered for its presidential brunch, and Senator Lindsey Graham was on hand representing Senator John McCain.
"We could do a comparison of liberalism in an extreme form," Graham said of a potential race against Obama. "If it's against Giuliani, you've got somebody with a record of being an executive... And it's going to be experience on foreign policy if it's John McCain."
Graham said he thought the election would come down to national security and that would give Republicans an edge. "It's going to be an election about who is going to be the best commander in chief," he said, arguing that McCain's long advocacy of a troop surge in Iraq was vindicated by the military success of the surge. "John is going to tell people, if you elect me, we're going to stay in Iraq to win. And he's going to use 'winning,' 'victory' -- words that our Democratic friends can't utter."
He continued, "This is not a popularity contest in the true sense of the word. This is a really serious decision Americans are going to make about who can lead this country in a time of war."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, spoke as if he could smell victory when asked at the Palace Theater how the campaign would respond to Republican criticisms.
"I just think that the tide of history is running against them," Axlerod said, citing the unpopularity of the war and economic anxiety. As for McCain, he said, "We're going to have a very vigorous debate if he's the nominee because he's the most robust supporter of the war... He's still carrying the tattered banner of the Bush presidency, and I think people want change, and I'm not sure he represents it."
PERHAPS SENSING THE need to differentiate himself from the administration, Mike Huckabee has accused it of having an "arrogant bunker mentality." And in Saturday's debate, he defended his statement by saying, "I'm not running for George Bush's third term."
Speaking at the brunch, GOPAC chairman and former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele made the case that there is a difference between words and actions.
"Hope alone is not a strategy, let alone a solution," he said. "Without action, hope is powerless to transform lives."
In a conversation afterwards, Steele said that Obama has his own vulnerabilities: "He's got a big hurdle to overcome -- he's a two-term state senator running for President of the United States at a time of war."
But Steele also acknowledged that Republicans are "going through a post-Reagan transition" and that different segments of the party have problems with each of the candidates for the nomination, which will make it difficult to compete against a Democratic Party that is unified and energized around Obama.
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