When the going gets tough, the tough get nasty

The two Democratic presidential candidates are threatening to — choose your political cliche — come out punching, take the gloves off, go negative, attack.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign even has a term for the strategy — “the kitchen sink” — as in throwing everything, including the sink, at Barack Obama. It worked for her in Texas and Ohio.

She was hardly on the high road even before Tuesday’s game-saving victories, having earlier accused him of plagiarism, suggested he might be a Muslim and mentioned that one of his fund-raisers was being tried on corruption charges.

Most recently, her campaign spokesman likened Obama to relentless Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr, perhaps not the best move since it gives the Obama camp an opportunity to reprise the Clintons’ scandals of the 1990s.

It’s not her first attack to cut more than one way. Her campaign ran the TV commercial asking who the viewers wanted to answer the phone in the White House when it rang at 3 a.m. The answer was clearly meant to be Hillary Clinton, but a common reaction was, “Now that you mention it, I think I’d like John McCain to take the call.”

Obama, in turn, has stepped up his demand that she release her tax returns, her White House schedules as first lady and the fund-raising records of her husband’s presidential library.

Clinton claims that she’s best equipped to withstand the Republican “attack machine” in the fall, and it’s true that she’s taken more punches than Rocky Balboa. Obama has yet to prove he can take a serious hit. Clinton’s attacks leading up to Texas and Ohio seemed to throw him off stride, but now he is threatening to respond in kind.

The previews show he has yet to get the hang of it: “One of the things I hope people start asking is what exactly is this foreign-policy experience she’s claiming. I know she talks about visiting 80 countries — was she negotiating treaties or agreements or was she handling crises during this period of time? My sense is the answer’s no.” As for Clinton being, as she says, “thoroughly vetted,” “I intend to examine that argument.” This is hardly red meat.

If the campaign turns nastier, that’s no bad thing. It’s a fair test of the candidates to see how they respond under pressure to attacks that are mean-spirited and unfair. Politics is unfair. The Republicans are unfair. The crazies in the Mideast are unfair. Life is unfair. Deal with it. We’ll be watching.