PITTSBURGH—Regardless of the final result, Barack Obama has emerged from Pennsylvania with something of real value: an answer to the question of just how much nastiness the market can bear from a candidate of hope.
“When you are in a campaign, you are always testing arguments and getting a sense of how they sound, and I think there has been some of that here,” said Senator Bob Casey, who has been Mr. Obama’s highest-profile surrogate in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Casey, who was a constant presence at the candidate’s side as the tenor of the campaign grew distinctly edgier and more personal, suggested that Mr. Obama’s more aggressive bearing toward Hillary Clinton may have been a preview of what he’ll be like against John McCain.
“I do think that whether you are ahead in a race or behind in a primary, part of getting a nomination is being able to make the case against the other team’s eventual nominee,” Mr. Casey said, on the evening before primary day. “I think even though some may see it as looking ahead, at being the nominee, one of the ways you get to that point is being able to demonstrate that you can make the case against John McCain.”
Mr. Casey was speaking with The Observer at an event in a small college gym in McKeesport, where Mr. Obama had just finished telling a diverse and sympathetic audience that Mrs. Clinton was the person who “got Iraq wrong” and that Mr. McCain “wants to continue a war that he considers a success. He said he is willing to keep troops potentially present in Iraq for as long as 100 years.”
In that warm and rowdy gym, as he had all week, Mr. Obama wrapped those attacks in the promise of a different kind of politics.
“We can end up spending all our time in tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, slash-and-burn politics,” he said. “We can be obsessed with personal attacks, we can stay focused on issues that have nothing to do with making sure your lives are a little bit better, or we can decide that we are going to pull together this time—that this time is going to be different.”
According to aides and staffers for Mr. Obama, the Pennsylvania primary, and the relatively high level of familiarity and comfort the state’s voters have with rough-and-tumble political tactics, afforded the candidate an opportunity to try out a sharper line of attack.
He excoriated Mrs. Clinton as an untrustworthy representative of special interests and the status quo, and described Mr. McCain as an out-of-touch heir to George W. Bush’s third term.
“I have heard people wonder whether he was tough enough to do this,” said the campaign’s communications director, Robert Gibbs.
“We have understood for a long time that there is a brand and you can’t exceed those limits,” he said, before adding, “I think it was important to show to Democrats that we can take a punch and throw one.”
It is clearly a point of interest for the Obama campaign to portray the stepped-up aggression as a defensive reaction to the unremitting criticism coming from both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain.
Mr. Gibbs said that he didn’t think Mr. Obama’s tone had gotten too “hot.” And the campaign’s senior strategist, David Axelrod, also sought to downplay the candidate’s obviously more negative line of attack.
“I don’t think this has been particularly negative,” Mr. Axelrod told reporters traveling on the campaign plane from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon.
“This campaign is a response to the politics of Washington,” he said. “Senator Clinton is running as a master practitioner of the politics of Washington.”
He denied that the campaign was any sort of test run of a negative general-election strategy.
And yet, assuming Mr. Obama wins the nomination, it was undoubtedly a preview.
Certainly, Pennsylvania provided just the right circumstances for the campaign to go for blood. For one thing, the Obama campaign was clearly determined to approach this contest differently than Ohio—another state whose demographics favored Mrs. Clinton—when they were perceived afterward to have gone soft in the days leading up to her campaign-preserving win there. For another, Pennsylvanians have a high threshold for negativity—they’re used to seeing muddy campaigns.
But most of all, it was Mrs. Clinton’s own negative ads and speeches that gave the campaign a perfect excuse to respond in kind.
In the final run-up to Tuesday’s election, Mr. Obama and his campaign stepped into the role of smiling assassin—with relish, it must be said—in hardscrabble iron towns, leafy suburbs, at train stations and college campuses, on conference calls and in the television ads that blanketed the state.