Like all of us, Barack Obama needs to be humbled once in a while, no matter how great everyone says he is. But when Hillary Clinton's campaign charges him with plagiarism for a few borrowed speech lines, their desperation is showing.
The New York senator's campaign accuses the Illinois senator of plagiarism just because he borrowed a few words from his friend, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, without giving proper credit.
Yet, since the beginning of this year, Clinton and now-Republican frontrunner John McCain have both borrowed Obama's signature "Fired up! Ready to go!" line, although without much of Obama's rhetorical fire.
That lack of fire, it appears to me, is Clinton's bigger issue. It's not what Obama says that her campaign finds so vexing. It is how well he says it and how much his audiences swoons, sometimes quite literally. What really riles up the Clinton camp is when the media swoon, too.
Team Clinton, including her husband, have charged that the media have a double standard. Obama gets a pass, in the Clinton camp's view, on slips, offenses and other controversies for which Hillary would be hammered.
Does the Clinton campaign exaggerate their victimhood in order to gain some tactical advantage? No doubt. In a high stakes, neck-and-neck contest, you play every card in your deck. Yet at least some of the Clintons' beef appears to have the added advantage of being true.
For example, remember how Clinton stumbled through a nearly incomprehensible answer to a debate question about whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses? Hillary was pilloried for days by various media critics. But when Obama's stumbled on the same question in the next debate, his answer was shrugged off as a mere slip of the tongue.
Of course, it is worth noting that Clinton's stumble made news precisely because, until then, she had performed flawlessly in what seemed to be more debates than anyone could keep count.
Obama, by comparison, was still part of her herd of challengers. Now that he's increasingly seen as the guy to beat, his life should be getting rougher and the Clintons are frustrated when it isn't.
In Iowa, they point out, Obama denounced the independent spending groups and political action committees that supported then-opponent John Edwards' campaign. Yet when Obama refrained from denouncing similar groups who put up ads in his behalf in Nevada and California, hardly anyone but Edwards' supporters seemed to notice.
More recently Obama appears to be waffling on a vow to abide by the public finance campaign-spending rules in the general election if his opponent did. Yet a careful reading of his earlier pronouncements reveals that he was keeping his options more open than he initially appeared to be. Will he be hounded in the media for this in the way that the Clintons surely would? Do very many voters really care?
That's the trick bag Clinton had a hand in weaving herself into. To make herself sound more electable, she has presented a tough, take-no-prisoners image to show how prepared she is to face any Republican attack machine, if she's nominated. That makes it difficult for her to denounce the Obama campaign for its own clever maneuvers around its rivals and critics. It's easier for her to blame the media instead, which can get old pretty quick.
Obama, by comparison, looks fresh and new and almost heroic as a biracial newcomer to national politics who nevertheless scores repeated successes against prejudices, politics-as-usual and the old-school political establishment.
But therein also lies a vulnerability. Obama has risen rapidly and amazingly without facing a contest nearly as tough as some of those that Clinton has faced. Facing Sen. John McCain, a genuine war hero, political maverick and campaign finance reformer, Obama would not be likely to be as lucky again. Yet, that possibility doesn't daunt his supporters by much. After all, as he points out, "I'm from Chicago," a city where politics is not for the squeamish.
And that, too, frustrates the Clinton camp. For a guy who promises an end to politics as usual, Obama shows remarkable comfort at playing the old political games. Yet instead of criticizing his comfort with political hardball, Obama's fans seem to draw some comfort from the hope that he won't be a patsy for Republican attacks. In that sense, their preference for Obama is much like a wise man once said of second marriages: a triumph of hope over experience.