For the next month or so, the conservative valentines will arrive every day at the headquarters of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The Illinois senator’s image will be illuminated by the bipartisan aura of admiration from prominent Republican commentators and strategists, as they savor the promise of his victory over Hillary Clinton, long the object of their hatred. He may well imagine that they really like him — and surely some of them do, at least for now.

Such happy feelings are easily conjured these days, when William Kristol hopes Democratic superdelegates will do “the good deed” of pledging their ballots to Obama, when George Will urges Democrats to choose Obama as “the party’s most potentially potent nominee,” and when Peggy Noonan promises that Obama will be “bulletproof” against Republican attack.

Meanwhile, in the bleaker precincts of the blogosphere, lesser figures prepare to welcome the Democratic front-runner should he secure his party’s nomination. Evidently, they will celebrate his triumph with poison gas and bombshells rather than confetti and champagne.

If you listen closely, you can already hear the test rounds exploding.

The target is Obama’s favorable but hazy persona, which Republican operatives must redefine in negative and even threatening terms. Assuming that the Republican nominee will be Sen. John McCain, they will aim to contrast his tough, aggressive stance against Islamist terrorism with his opponent’s alleged weakness and naivety. But as usual, they will do worse, spreading slurs and smears that depict Obama as a dupe or even a sympathizer of Islamic radicals.

False accusations about Obama’s religious affiliation have surfaced in anonymous e-mail campaigns, with little impact so far. But the easily denied charges about his supposed Muslim upbringing are gradually giving way to more concrete allegations. The latest round involves his political intervention in Kenya, the home of his late father, where violence between ethnic and partisan factions has erupted in the wake of a disputed presidential election.

As usual, the right-wing narrative melds half-truths and lies with facts to create a seamless indictment.

Leading conservative blogs and publications charge that Obama recklessly aligned himself with opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement. Followers of Odinga, a member of the minority Luo tribe, have perpetrated horrific atrocities against members of the Kikuyu tribe because incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and the nation’s ruling elite are Kikuyu. One of the worst incidents occurred in the village of Eldoret, where dozens of Kikuyu Christians burned to death when they sought shelter in a church that was then set afire by their rampaging pursuers.

These events are set within the broader story line of an alleged Muslim plot to overthrow the Kibaki government, which is friendly to the United States and the West, and replace the secular constitution of Kenya with sharia law, creating a haven for al-Qaida — which blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi a decade ago and still operates there, according to American diplomats. During the Kenyan election, the Christian evangelical movement in Kenya circulated a “memorandum of understanding” allegedly signed by Odinga and a group of Muslim clerics that would commit his government to instituting Muslim strictures against pork and alcohol, setting up sharia courts and ending cooperation against terrorism with Western governments.

Denounced as a forgery by Odinga and Muslim authorities in Kenya, which it almost certainly is, that document nevertheless still circulates via the Internet and is quoted by American publications. The point is to raise questions about Obama and his connections with Odinga — who claims to be his cousin — and to infiltrate those doubts into the mainstream media.

It is true that Obama, whose family is Luo, lent support to the opposition leader during a visit to Kenya two years ago — and that they have maintained contact ever since. While that gaffe infuriated the Kibaki regime, it proved only that Obama lacked diplomatic expertise. During the current crisis in his homeland, he has tried to play a constructive role by taping radio announcements for the State Department that urge both sides to stop fighting and resolve their differences without violence.

Yet the outlines of the coming assault on his fitness and character are clear enough, just as the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry opened fire many months before the public noticed. The Kenya tale is a single aspect of a multifaceted strategy to portray Obama as a callow politician with dubious associations, who cannot be trusted with power. He will be subjected to the same ruthless treatment as the last Democratic nominee. Let’s hope he is better armored to withstand the incoming fire.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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