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That dreaded ringing phone

Every election year, voters complain about all the nasty stuff on their televisions.

Up and down they swear the negative ads turn them off, but cycle after cycle political operatives re-use the time-honored tradition despite all the blustering.

The simple fact: negative works.

Hillary Clinton employed a familiar, almost trite, approach in her final ad before Tuesday’s primaries in Texas and Ohio.

It was the dreaded ringing phone in the middle of the night.

It’s scarier than the “waking up from nightmares” montage Oscar host Jon Stewart showed during the Academy Awards, and, from a distance, just as funny.

And when a voice that sounds a lot like Mr. Movie Trailer — “In a world where … ” — starts talking over pictures of children nestled snug in their beds, voters take note.

“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” Hillary Clinton’s ad said. “But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing.” The phone rings six times as we see shot after shot of the innocents. Once again at the end you’re reminded, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep.”

You’d have to flash back to 1984 to find another phone front and center in a Democratic race. But in the Walter Mondale spot — intended to convey that you don’t want Gary Hart answering the phone — the red phone just lights up, it doesn’t ring.

Republicans go more frequently to the ringing phone playbook.

In 2006, Republican Sen. John Ensign wasted no time in eviscerating his lightly funded Democratic opponent, Jack Carter. His spot began: “It’s 5 a.m. A call is made from a known terrorist in Afghanistan to a sleeper cell in the U.S. Jack Carter believes we should hang up and get a court order, a costly delay. An opportunity to stop a terror plot has been lost.”

The rule of law doesn’t apply in campaign ads when Republicans play the national security card. But ringing phones sure do.

This was an ad also used in 2006 by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn. “A call is placed from New York to a known terrorist in Pakistan,” her ad said.

In most homes, a ringing phone in the middle of the night is a source of fright in itself. In political hands, it scared plenty of voters into the Clinton camp Tuesday. Exit polling showed two-thirds of voters who made up their minds in the final three days before the primaries in Ohio and Texas went for Clinton. Of course, Clinton also turned out her base and used the political establishment in Ohio well to chalk up a 10-point victory there.

The larger point of the ad, that Barack Obama isn’t tested enough to be the one to answer the Bat Phone, also played perfectly against two news stories that broke against Obama. The pile-on made just enough voters worry about his readiness.

And now that Clinton is back on the winning track (despite trailing in delegates and facing an uphill mathematical curve to win the nomination), she’ll head to Pennsylvania with a lead there.

The good citizens of the commonwealth will now be deluged with seven weeks of visits, events and, yes, negative ads.

The danger for Obama is that while he can respond, he cannot launch his own attacks without losing the luster he enjoys from building a campaign largely on transcending the politics of fear.

The danger for Clinton, even if she forces a brokered convention that she and Bill can deftly manipulate, is that her own telephone ad won’t hold up for the general. Who do the majority of Americans want answering the phone when there’s “trouble in the world,” a woman who fretted about great right-wing conspiracies or a war hero?

In future ads, Clinton probably won’t go so far as to morph Barack Hussein Obama into either of the two madmen his name recalls. But you can bet she’ll happily continue the thread about Obama not having as much experience.

And assuming she loses the next two contests, in Obama-friendly Wyoming and Mississippi, she’ll only ratchet up the rhetoric.

On Wednesday she made the audacious assertion that a “joint ticket” would be gangbusters. We know her husband didn’t inhale, but what might she be smoking to believe Obama would want to be on the ticket with her? And if Obama’s just not as ready for prime time as the “Saturday Night Live” guest host, why would Clinton want him a heartbeart away?

The early, early calendar was supposed to get Democrats a nominee by now, not push the resolution back farther than in each of the past three cycles.

Unfortunately for Nevada Democrats, the reconvened Clark County convention is set for April 12, a full 10 days before Pennsylvania. That means we might see a repeat of the passions that helped trigger the chaos which dominated the first event.

It’s a good thing they booked the Thomas & Mack Center. As the campaign continues, Nevada’s Democrats will once again be front and center in the middle of the world’s biggest political story.

Contact Erin Neff at eneff@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2906.

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