Obama, Clinton Sparring Early
Monday, March 12, 2007
CLINTON, Iowa -- Standing in front of a large banner that blared "Clinton," surrounded by students in Clinton Community College sweat shirts, Sen. Barack Obama offhandedly mentioned the obvious.
"Hillary, you know, she's interesting," Obama said, acknowledging that he understood they would consider other candidates before making up their minds.
In the month since the presidential nominating contest got underway, Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have barely mentioned each other's names in public or even greeted each other in the Senate halls. But each campaign has increasingly fixated on the other, engaging in a shadowboxing match in which they intentionally cross paths but dodge to avoid each other's subtle jabs. With an intensity unusual for this stage of the campaign the two are indirectly engaging, invading each other's terrain and going to great lengths to contrast their candidacies.
Clinton recently has been the aggressor: After following Obama to Selma, Ala., for a civil rights commemoration last week, she proposed voting-rights legislation at the same time as Obama, holding a rival news conference on Capitol Hill to announce her measure (although she has introduced similar legislation previously).
When legislators in South Carolina announced plans to have Obama give a keynote address in April, Clinton officials maneuvered -- unsuccessfully -- to get her a speaking slot as well. As recently as January, it was Obama who was seen to be playing catch-up on Iraq, introducing language to cap troop levels after Clinton offered similar legislation. In New Hampshire on Saturday night, Clinton compared the challenges in breaking down barriers to her candidacy to those faced in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, who most often has been invoked in comparisons to the youth and charisma of Obama.
Privately, Clinton advisers are working to blunt Obama's perceived momentum: In evening sessions with major party fundraisers at the home of Vernon Jordan last week, Clinton's strategists presented data portraying her as the Democratic candidate best positioned to win the general election and argued that Obama stands less of a chance, according to several people present.
Obama is hardly sitting still as the campaign accelerates. He held a highly publicized fundraiser on Clinton's New York turf over the weekend. When he arrived in Iowa, he began distributing a new glossy pamphlet declaring that he is the "only candidate for president" who has proposed binding legislation to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and noting that he was "opposed to the Iraq war from the very start" -- although he was not yet in the Senate when Congress authorized President Bush to go to war. This message sets Obama apart from others in the Democratic field, including former senator John Edwards (N.C.), but also directly underscores his central policy difference with Clinton.
Obama said he welcomes voter comparisons of candidates.
"I know Iowans are notorious about wanting to lift the hood and kick the tires," Obama said at the event in Clinton, a small town in eastern Iowa, on Saturday, noting that he could guess what some in the audience were thinking: "I want to wait and hear what John Edwards has to say, he's kind of good-looking. And you know, Hillary Clinton, you know, she's interesting."
He never finished the thought, but Obama again mentioned Clinton in a similarly understated way later that night during a rally in Davenport, that time drawing hisses from some in the crowd.
Both campaigns insist that the battle for the nomination is not a two-way race. Edwards is strong enough in Iowa that he remains a threat to carry the state's caucuses, and with so many months left in the 2008 nominating contest, any number of variables -- including the dollar amounts the campaigns report raising when the first reporting period closes at the end of March -- could alter the dynamics of the Democratic field.
Although the two-way struggle is a natural outgrowth of polling that has shown Obama cutting into Clinton's early lead, the duel presents potential problems for both of them. Clinton has cast herself as the candidate of inevitability and portrays her aggressiveness as a show of strength, but some strategists said she risks appearing fixated on her competitor by responding to Obama's every move.
Obama, meanwhile, has promised to run a "different campaign" that does not allow for unseemly political tactics -- a message and strategy imperiled each time he responds to his rivals, by name or otherwise.
Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman, declined to comment on the back-and-forth. But Obama's advisers said the appearance of a choreographed minuet was unintentional on their end. Although Obama visited Dubuque this weekend on the heels of a similar visit by Clinton last week, his strategists said the trip had long been on the schedule. The same advisers said the stop in Clinton, halfway between Dubuque and Davenport, was a simple matter of logistics.
The most striking and direct Obama-Clinton clash erupted a few weeks ago, when anti-Clinton comments from entertainment mogul David Geffen triggered days of sparring between the campaigns as Clinton demanded Obama cut ties with Geffen and Obama's team hit back sharply.
"They each seem to feel like they have to react because that's the way a modern campaign works -- I think people have been trained to feel like that, and Democrats have been so burned by not reacting in the past," said one prominent Clinton supporter, who expressed disapproval of the Clinton campaign's aggressive response to Obama and has recommended trying to rise above it. "But at some point it just becomes noise."
Geoffrey D. Garin, a leading Democratic pollster not aligned with a presidential campaign, said that the shadowboxing at this stage is primarily tactical rather than strategic and that Obama and Clinton are very different candidates in little danger of mimicking each other.
While Clinton is running as an establishment candidate with an emphasis on "proven leadership," Garin said, Obama is "all about authentic, inspirational leadership. And their backgrounds, and their claims to the hearts and souls of Democrats, are different in big respects." Thus, he added, it is sensible for Clinton to try to edge out Obama where she can, particularly in the struggle for support among black voters, which she sought to do by going to Selma.
"Obama would be making a huge mistake to try to be Hillary, and Hillary would be making a huge mistake to try to be Obama, but on some of these tactical questions there's no reason why the Clinton campaign should be giving any ground," Garin said.
Clinton has provided the subtext of the Obama campaign from the start, as he has presented himself as a next-generation alternative without the partisan baggage of the divisive Clinton presidency. Much of his stump speech is implicitly about Clinton, without mentioning her by name. In front of about 3,500 people at the Davenport rally on Saturday night, Obama recited a litany of ills facing the country, then asked rhetorically: "How did we arrive at this point?"
"George Bush!" someone in the audience shouted, drawing a roar of cheers.
The crowd seemed happy to leave it at that. But Obama pressed on.
"You know what?" Obama said once the laughter and shouting began to die down. "It goes beyond George Bush. Because what it has to do with is a cynicism that has infected us as a country -- a sense that politics is a game, that politics is sport, that it's all about calling each other names and cutting each other and getting tactical advantage. And folks with the money and the special interests writing the legislation that affects our lives on a daily basis. And we don't feel like we can make a difference."