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Candidates' positive ads mask trash-talk reality

The Hillary Clinton campaign yesterday unveiled two new TV ads for the Pennsylvania primary, featuring effusive praise from Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter - nothing but positive messages.

The Hillary Clinton campaign yesterday unveiled two new TV ads for the Pennsylvania primary, featuring effusive praise from Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter - nothing but positive messages.

On the same day, though, her campaign communications director, Howard Wolfson, urged reporters in a conference call to write negative stories about rival Barack Obama, saying that Obama "dissembled, didn't provide the truth, wasn't candid" about an economic adviser's statements to Canadian officials last month.

The contrast illustrates an odd dynamic at work in the campaign, both in Pennsylvania and nationally.

Both candidates want to damage the other's popularity, but are afraid to use the weapon that really gets results: the hard-edged, 30-second attack ad with grainy black-and-white images and an announcer reciting the worst things about an opponent.

The dilemma is particularly acute for Clinton, who has slipped in Pennsylvania polls and needs to win the state big and to revive her hopes for the nomination.

Why doesn't Hillary attack?

"There's something like 15 percent in the middle undecided, and I think [the campaigns] have decided those voters don't want to see World War III," said veteran media consultant Neil Oxman.

"People say they're fed up with partisanship in Washington, and they want to hear people talk about solutions," he said, "so you don't see those ads where you take a shovel and bang it against the other guy's head."

The result is a campaign in which candidates take the high road in TV ads and most public statements, but their staff and surrogates feed reporters negative information.

Most of the negative stories get little play beyond cable TV, talk shows and political Web sites. Thus reporters and political junkies see the race as far more contentious than most voters do.

The candidates do sometimes throw barbs in speeches and occasionally plant subtle negative messages in their positive ads.

Consider, for example, a recent Clinton radio ad showcasing a montage of praise from former military commanders.

"I admire charisma, but I want more than that," Brig. Gen. Michael Dunn says in the ad, echoing the campaign theme that Obama is inspiring but under-qualified.

"You cannot learn on the job," Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard says, hinting at the critique that Obama lacks experience.

In that commercial, and in Clinton TV ads with a dramatic 3 a.m. phone call to the White House, Obama's name is never mentioned.

That's not the case in frequent conference calls with reporters and campaign media releases, in which ranking campaign officials of both campaigns and their surrogates trash the opposition.

"They want the negative stuff coming from the free press," said Democratic campaign consultant Larry Ceisler. "They want the so-called objective third party to bear the bad news."

Obama was asked in an interview last week whether his campaign staff feeding negative stories about Clinton was consistent with his commitment to rise above partisanship and stay positive.

"This is a tension that we have at this stage in the campaign," Obama said, saying that he and his staff decided to fight back when the Clinton campaign began feeding so many negative stories to the media.

"We've definitely been absorbing a lot more blows than we've been giving," Obama said.

Clinton communications chief Wolfson has suggested that reporters write about the contradiction between Obama's stated principles and the negative statements of his staff and surrogates.

Meanwhile, two polls released yesterday offered contrasting pictures of the Pennsylvania race.

A Quinnipiac University poll found Clinton's lead over Obama down to 6 percentage points among likely Democratic voters. The margin was 50 to 44, down from 50 to 41 in an April 2 poll.

An automated phone poll by Survey USA found Clinton with an 18-point lead, 56 percent to 38 percent. *