"They will try to Swift Boat me," said Barack Obama in the days before the New Hampshire primary, looking forward to the Democratic nomination that he still believes will be his, with a prediction both accurate and chilling.
Whether he can go on to claim the nomination is yet to be determined. Much more predictable is the nature of the campaign that would be waged against him — and the fickleness of the national press corps if and when that ugly process eventually reaches its nadir.
The effective template for attacking a Democratic nominee was developed by former Republican political boss Karl Rove during decades of trench warfare in Texas and across the country. While Rove may only whisper advice from the sidelines next fall, his approach can be easily copied by lesser talents: Seize upon the Democrat's most attractive quality and sow doubts to undermine that appeal. With candidates such as John Kerry and Max Cleland, that meant tearing down their records as war heroes and raising questions about their patriotism.
With Obama, the obvious target is his inspirational life story. The task of the opposition operatives will be to twist that saga, to unearth facts or factoids that raise concerns about the candidate's background, and to make his cosmopolitan upbringing appear alien and even sinister — and of course, to play the race card against him, either subtly or blatantly. These themes will begin to appear in the right-wing press, which is of course where the original Swift Boat smears first showed up four years ago.
Indeed, that process has begun, and is accelerating along with Obama's drive toward the nomination. Conservatives will briefly applaud him for defeating Hillary Clinton, the immediate object of their hatred, and then turn on him as the next target. Denigrating material about the front-runner — whose popularity and skill they clearly fear — will be ready for deployment very shortly, but will not be aired until his nomination is a certainty.
Meanwhile, certain themes are being tested on the websites of the extreme right. The basic concept is to suggest that Obama is somehow less wholesome than he appears to be, and to provoke bigoted responses. On these sites and in e-mail barrages, he is being portrayed as the son and stepson of Muslims from Africa and Asia, who worshipped in mosques and madrasas as a young boy. That is a proven falsehood surrounding a tiny grain of fact, but no matter. Repetition will make the poison.
Next will come questions about the Chicago church he attends, whose eccentric pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a close friend and spiritual adviser to the Obama family. In an article published on the Newsmax website just days ago, Wright is depicted as a raving black nationalist and a proud associate of Louis Farrakhan. He is prone to polarizing remarks about a wide range of topics, from Jews and Israel to the disappearance of Natalee Holloway.
The Newsmax article on the relationship between Obama and Wright displays at least one aspect of the campaign under construction on the right. Although such websites may seem marginal, they are not — and more powerful forces are clearly indicating their interest in these same lines of attack.
Brad Blakeman, a former Bush White House aide who now runs Freedom's Watch, a political committee funded by major Republican donors that has aired several pro-war commercials, told Newsmax he was aware of the Wright connection.
"If your spiritual adviser makes outrageous statements, it's incumbent on you as a leader to denounce those statements," he said. "Silence is an admission that you agree with what your spiritual adviser pronounces."
Newsmax concluded that "if Obama is his party's nominee, his Republican opponent will rightly be able to make use of Rev. Wright and his radical teachings as effectively as supporters of George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton's furlough to help Bush win the presidency." In other words, be prepared for the attack ads to be aired by Freedom's Watch and other shadowy, well-funded organizations, just like the Horton ads put up by an earlier "independent committee" in 1988.
The unscrupulous right wing will do exactly the same thing to Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination — except that those smears will have to be reruns.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.