Clinton's Rivals Adopt More Partisan Approach

By Alec MacGillis and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 15, 2007

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."

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