Toward the end of the March 17 version of the daily Clinton campaign conference call, with more than 100 reporters around the country listening in, Howard Wolfson leaned back in his chair, folded his hands behind his head and hit Barack Obama square in the nose.
“And that gets back to our original point,” said Mr. Wolfson toward a black phone set to speaker. “Which is, you know the American people can count on John McCain to continue the failed Bush policies in Iraq; they can’t count on Senator Obama to follow through on his policies and his promises.”
At this point in the never-ending Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton is essentially relying on Mr. Wolfson and his conference call to keep her in the game. Down in pledged delegates, states won and the popular vote, Mrs. Clinton’s only possible salvation lies in convincing the party superdelegates that Mr. Obama has lead feet and a glass jaw: that he is, in short, unelectable.
That’s where Mr. Wolfson comes in.
In February 2007, the public and press seemed to recoil from Mr. Wolfson’s initial all-out assault on Mr. Obama in a dust-up with former Clinton fund-raiser David Geffen, an incident several campaign staffers said showed a market unwilling to bear Mr. Wolfson’s brand of relentless, on-message aggression.
Now, with all pretense of an amicable primary shattered, Mrs. Clinton has entrusted Mr. Wolfson with the responsibility of becoming an un-ignorable distraction for the other side, battering Mr. Obama until he is unrecognizable–and, preferably, a little scary–to party insiders. Of late, the call has essentially become a daily reiteration of the 3 a.m. phone call ad, sometimes featuring retired military officers and always pounding the message again and again that Mr. Obama is simply unready to be commander in chief.
“You know what, we’re electing a president, and it matters who is handling a phone call of a crisis at 3 a.m. as a president,” said Mr. Wolfson on one marathon call from Feb 29. He also used the phrase “buyer’s remorse.”
The operatives in the Wolfson-led Clinton press office think they are doing a pretty good job, and in private conversations they say they are surprised at the extent to which they’ve been able to have their way with Mr. Obama and his suddenly beleaguered communications team.
Mr. Wolfson is more measured, describing the calls as an opportunity for him to “amplify” his candidate’s message in every media market in the country.
“It is a challenge, a professional challenge to be on a call for an hour with the toughest reporters in the business,” said Mr. Wolfson in his office on the fifth floor of Clinton campaign headquarters on Monday. He wore khaki pants, beat-up loafers and a red-and-black sweater emblazoned with hawks that looked like an old rug. “I like doing it, and people should like their jobs.”
Mr. Wolfson said that the calls increased in intensity and frequency in the run-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries. “That’s when we started doing them every day and they became as central as they are now,” said Mr. Wolfson. “It was the week that the [Tony] Rezko trial began, the [Austan] Goolsbee situation. There were just a lot of interesting things happening that week.”
Almost every day since, he and his team have made the argument, using ominous phrases like “troubling pattern” and “just words,” that Mr. Obama cannot be trusted to lead the country.
The Obama campaign has tried to respond in kind.
“Raising questions is not, as Howard Wolfson suggested, Ken Starr politics,” said Mr. Obama’s senior strategist, David Axelrod, on a March 16 call. He also said of Mrs. Clinton, “They say she is fully vetted but the truth is she is a veteran of nondisclosure.”
The Clinton calls, however—which can easily last twice as long as the Obama calls, more than 70 minutes at times—are clearly the main event, taking on all the importance of a speech by the candidate herself and setting in motion the day’s story line, to which Mr. Obama himself is forced to respond.
(On March 18, when a dramatic speech by Mr. Obama about his controversial former pastor ensured that the topic of the day would be race, the Clinton press shop adapted by simply changing the subject, mounting a vigorous attack on the Obama campaign for “passive-aggressively” thwarting the staging of new primaries in Florida and Michigan.)