On Campaign Bus, Obama Opens Up About Challengers

Aboard his campaign bus, Barack Obama discusses his candidacy and the differences he sees among Democratic front-runners.
Aboard his campaign bus, Barack Obama discusses his candidacy and the differences he sees among Democratic front-runners. (By Dan Balz -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 9, 2007

CHARITON, Iowa, Nov. 8 -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) took on his two principal rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, arguing that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) cannot appeal to independents and Republicans as effectively as he can and asserting that former senator John Edwards's populist message does not square with his record.

But even as he was challenging Clinton and Edwards (N.C.), Obama said he would resist pressure from supporters and others to go sharply negative in his bid for the nomination, saying that would undermine his effort to bring a close to an era of polarizing politics.

Aboard his campaign bus as he rolled through southeast Iowa on Thursday afternoon, Obama spoke frankly about the difficult balancing act of drawing ever sharper distinctions with his opponents, particularly Clinton, without succumbing to going negative to overtake a front-runner.

"I want to campaign the same way I govern, which is to respond directly and forcefully with the truth," Obama said. "That means I'm not going to paint a caricature of Senator Clinton. I think she's a smart, able person. I think anybody who tries to paint her as all negative is engaging in caricature, and when you start slipping into that mode, it's hard to come back."

He acknowledged that some might interpret that as a sign of timidity but said that he is convinced there is no other way for him to try to win the nomination. "First of all, you start losing credibility," he said. "Secondly, I'm not that good at saying things I don't really believe. Maybe this is considered a weakness in my political style. I try to stick to what I think."

Obama also defended his support for giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a flash point in the Democratic race the past two weeks, and acknowledged that the eventual nominee will face a barrage of criticism from Republicans on the issue of immigration.

He also sought to explain a recent shift in his message on Social Security, an issue on which he has accused Clinton of not being forthcoming.

The interview came midway through a five-day stint in Iowa and at a time when he has been far more pointed in talking about his rivals. With less than 60 days until the Iowa caucuses, Obama has been trying to make a forceful case that he can do what no other Democrat in the race can: bring independents and Republicans to support his candidacy in a general election.

Democrats, he said, have an opportunity to rebuild their party, but only if they seize what he calls a unique opportunity, and he argues that he can redraw the political map in a way Clinton cannot.

"Whatever arguments you want to make for Hillary Clinton, I don't think anybody believes that somehow the election is going to be significantly different than 2000 or 2004, that different states or different congressional districts suddenly come into play, that she brings in a whole new group of voters that might not have voted before."

Edwards, who has staked his candidacy on winning the Iowa caucuses, has turned his attention to Obama recently, arguing that the Illinois senator would be too willing to compromise with special interests as president. The former North Carolina senator has said the next president must be willing to fight those interests.

Obama suggested Edwards had reconstituted himself since his last campaign. "John wasn't this raging populist four years ago when he ran" for the previous Democratic nomination, he said. "He certainly wasn't when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He was in the U.S. Senate for six years, and as far as I can tell wasn't taking on the lobbyists and special interests. It's a matter of, do you walk the walk that you talk?"

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