Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Clinton's Rivals Adopt More Partisan Approach"

Sen. Barack Obama began his campaign with calls for a less divisive kind of politics, but now he sounds a more partisan tone. John Edwards, after building a campaign in part around ending poverty, has begun to lacerate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the perpetuator of a corrupt status quo in Washington.

As Clinton (N.Y.), the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, seeks to solidify her position atop the race, her main rivals are reshaping the arguments for their candidacies and sparking a broader debate about the future of their party.
The shift has been most noticeable for Obama. While still talking about the need for bipartisan consensus, he is putting himself forward as a forceful standard-bearer for Democrats and is suggesting that Clinton is too defensive at a time when the party's prospects are on the rise.

"I'm so sick and tired of the Democratic Party being scared with what the Republicans are going to do. And so we end up trying to act and couch what we say to make sure that we're seen as tough, not vulnerable to all the Swift-boating," Obama (Ill.) told voters last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He added: "I'm not afraid of these folks."

Edwards, meanwhile, is going further than before in casting his candidacy in opposition to a Washington he says Clinton personifies. On a recent swing through Iowa, the former senator from North Carolina did not mention the word "poverty" in several speeches, but he listed the industries from which Clinton had taken more money than any other candidate in either party.

With Democrats heading into another debate tonight in Las Vegas, the race is more fluid than it has been in months. Clinton encountered her first string of perceived stumbles on the trail, starting with her rivals' assertions that hedged answers in their Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia suggested a lack of forthrightness. This was followed by negative reviews of her campaign's complaints about "piling on" at the debate, reports that aides had planted questions at an Iowa event, and widespread praise for Obama's speech at a party fundraiser in Des Moines on Saturday.

Clinton's campaign dismisses the Obama team's talk of a narrowing race. "His rhetoric may no longer be hopeful, but it sounds like his campaign still is," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said.

For the past several months, Clinton has hewn to a front-runner's strategy, rarely engaging her challengers directly and instead focusing her attacks on Republicans. The closest she has come to taking on Obama has been to stress her own experience -- drawing attention to his brief tenure in Washington -- and to upbraid rivals for attacking fellow Democrats.

But in recent days, the Clinton team has engaged more seriously in a back-and-forth with rivals. Earlier this week, after Edwards ran an advertisement asserting he would take away the health care of members of Congress if they do not agree to a universal-coverage proposal, Clinton aides sharply criticized him, noting that the president has no such authority. Looking ahead to tonight's debate, Wolfson said, "We expect that our opponents will attack Senator Clinton, and we're prepared for it."

Obama's campaign is preparing for more direct engagement. "I'm sure the computers are whizzing over there. I just don't know what they will spit out," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. "I heard her say Saturday night that Democrats should not attack Democrats, and I'm sure she'll adhere to that. I'm sure that it has more than a five-day half-life."

The shifts in message by Clinton's rivals may reflect that they gained only so much traction with earlier themes. Early in the race, Edwards cast himself as a liberal alternative to Clinton with his focus on universal health care and poverty, but that was complicated when she introduced similar proposals. Through much of the summer, Obama centered his candidacy around his initial opposition to the Iraq war, for which Clinton and Edwards originally voted. But the Obama campaign's research showed while voters thought well of his early opposition, they also bought Clinton's argument that President Bush had misled Democrats into war.

Now Edwards is zeroing in much more on special interests. "Senator Clinton was talking about China and she said, 'Our problem with China is they have all this American debt. It's hard to be tough on your banker,' " Edwards told a crowd in Charles City, Iowa, last week. "Senator Clinton has raised more money from the health-care industry than any Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. I agree with her: It's tough to take on your banker."

Obama has spent much of this year talking about a "new kind of politics" and "politics of hope" that could transform Washington by transcending old divisions. The message holds obvious appeal, but faces a challenge of timing -- many Democrats believe that the problems of the past seven years stem less from a faulty political system than from mistakes made by Bush and other GOP leaders. Clinton, by contrast, has offered a more pragmatic appeal: to restore Democratic control and competent leadership to the White House.

Now Obama is offering sharper swipes at Republicans and casting himself more explicitly as the best person to carry his party's standard. He is also stressing more traditional pocketbook issues, such as high gas prices, in trying to connect with voters who aides say are less interested in rhetoric about reforming politics.

Obama's new theme surfaced in the last debate, in which he criticized Clinton for being too cautious in addressing Social Security. "This is part of the politics that we have been playing, which is to try to muddle through, give convoluted answers. Ultimately, we then don't have a mandate and we can't bring about change, in part because we're afraid to give Republicans talking points," he said. "I'm not fearful . . . to have a debate about this with Rudy Giuliani because we've got the facts on our side."

He expanded on this in a speech in Spartanburg, S.C., on Nov. 3, and again at the Des Moines fundraiser. "Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do it," he said there. "Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do it. If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, then we can't live in fear of losing."

He added: "I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans."

Kenneth Baer, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore who has not chosen sides in the Democratic race, said the feistier tone will help Obama, although he disagrees with the senator's critique of the Clinton administration as "poll-driven."

"It's good for him, because a lot of Democrats are wondering if he had a fight in him, if he was a little too laid-back, a little too conciliatory," Baer said. "He's trying to be the candidate of the future and the left; that's a winning place to be in the Democratic primary."

As the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses near, Edwards and Obama are also eyeing each other, gauging how much to attack one other as they jockey in Clinton's shadow. Joe Trippi, a top adviser to the Edwards campaign, questioned Obama's more partisan message. Trippi said that the senator is simply following Edwards's more aggressive lead, and that he doubts Obama can offer himself both as a fighter for the party's cause and as a unifier. "It's hard to move from an 'I can bring people together' consensus-builder to all of a sudden saying you're going to be this partisan lightning rod," he said.

Axelrod countered that Obama's emphasis on fighting for the party is not new. "This election has always been about who can rally the country around a progressive agenda, and it still is," he said. "What we're debating here is what direction the party should go. Do we fight for our principles . . . or do we calculate shifts on the ground according to political conditions?"

He also disputed the notion that Obama cannot be both a fighter for Democratic values and a post-partisan unifier. "They are compatible," he said. "Independent voters and disaffected Republican voters will give you a fair hearing if they don't think they're going to get a bait-and-switch. They want to know where you stand."
Howie P.S.: Meanwhile, "Obama Stands By Support For Spitzer Plan."

No comments: