By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 26, 2007
PERRY, Iowa, Nov. 25 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), her status as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in jeopardy, stepped up attacks on her closest rival with fewer than six weeks until the first nominating contest.
Just weeks ago, Clinton chastised her opponents for "mudslinging." But she unapologetically pursued her main challenger, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), over the weekend, standing by her decision to mock Obama's foreign policy experience and attacking his health-care plan -- part of what her advisers described as a new phase of her campaign that will present voters with a "real choice."
"I think that there are differences among us on issues and on qualifications and on experience -- and voters are going to begin drawing those judgments," Clinton said in response to a question Sunday about whether Democrats should attack one other.
Clinton proceeded to hammer Obama over his health-care proposal, saying that only her approach would ensure coverage for all Americans, and mocking him for what she called a "kind of confusing" approach to health care.
Obama and Clinton are locked in a tight race in Iowa with former senator John Edwards (N.C.), and each is putting renewed focus on electability -- a factor that helped turn the state for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in the 2004 Democratic contest. Although most Democrats at the national level view Clinton as the most viable nominee, Iowans are more receptive to viewing Obama and Edwards that way. All of the campaigns concede electability is a top concern among caucusgoers. Health plans and war policy aside, they want to back a winner.
Strategists for Obama said over the weekend that they see an opening for their candidate on the question of electability, and campaign manager David Plouffe also predicted a "relentlessly negative" barrage from the Clinton campaign in the days ahead.
Central to the new Clinton push will be the argument that only she can beat the eventual Republican nominee, a claim Obama is also seeking to make to voters here.
Advisers said her message will be: "You can't have change if you don't win." Her rivals, meanwhile, are moving aggressively to capitalize on Clinton's weaknesses in Iowa -- and, they hope, block her path to the nomination.
Obama's campaign continues to voice increasing optimism about its chances in Iowa, seeing growth opportunities for him even among what was expected to be Clinton's core constituency. On Sunday morning in Des Moines, Obama held a health-care forum in which five of the six panelists were women, the heart of the Clinton voter base.
Senior strategist Steve Hildebrand, who is organizing Iowa for Obama, said Clinton appeared to be boxed in with caucusgoers, still dominant with retirement-age and lower-income Democrats, but with few areas to advance.
Most glaring, Hildebrand said, was Clinton's 26 percent standing in last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll, particularly because she is so well-known. "She is barely getting one-fourth of the Democratic vote, and that number says more about her candidacy than any other number," Hildebrand said.
Clinton advisers acknowledge that, in a state that has never elected a woman to statewide office or sent a woman to Congress, she has challenges, and promised that she will not leave them unaddressed.
Former president Bill Clinton is scheduled to return to the state to boost the effort on Tuesday, and will keep arguing that she is both the most electable and experienced, advisers said.
Clinton operatives are also targeting Democrats who list her as a second choice after Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) or Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who have gained little traction in the polls but share what her advisers see as Clinton's chief asset: experience. Under the Iowa caucus rules, candidates must meet a threshold of 15 percent of delegate strength at each site; supporters of non-viable candidates often switch at the last minute to back a winner.
Obama is banking on that quirk of the Iowa system. He is now focusing on caucusgoers who are backing another Democrat but who list Obama as their second choice.
To expand its Iowa support, the Obama campaign is also targeting the 10 to 15 percent of Iowa Democrats who remain undecided. Hildebrand said he believes Obama is already beginning to make inroads with two core Clinton groups, non-college-educated voters and older voters.
Although Clinton makes the case that she has more experience than her rivals, especially Obama -- who was elected to the Senate three years ago -- Plouffe said Democrats in Iowa as well as New Hampshire are increasingly coming to view Obama as the candidate most likely to win next November.
"We're picking up a lot more on the ground on electability," Plouffe said. "What voters are looking at is: Who's got the best chance to win the election . . . and second, who can govern."
The electability question continued to trouble even some committed Clinton supporters. Among them here on Sunday was Colleen Clopton, the Clinton chairwoman for Greene County, who said she worries about what Republicans will do to Clinton if she is the nominee.
As a result, Clopton said she is still debating whether to vote for Biden, who as a white male without the Clinton baggage might be a safer choice, she said.
"I'm so afraid of the Republicans against her," Clopton said.
Clopton later asked the same question of the candidate herself during an open question-and-answer session. Clinton replied that her record in New York demonstrates she can win over Republican strongholds.
Clinton also appeared to have other persistent problems, particularly with her image as a Washington insider rather than as a fresh face.
At a Clinton event in Sioux City on Saturday, one undecided Democrat, Brenda Oehlerking, 54, a computer technician, said she is leaning toward Obama, because he "is about change."
"I think Obama is a little more exciting," Oehlerking said. She left halfway through the Clinton event.
Advisers to rival campaigns said they have seen signs of panic from the Clinton campaign in the wake of a disappointing debate performance at the end of October. Joe Trippi, Edwards's campaign manager, said it was revealing that Clinton made fun of Obama for citing his childhood in Indonesia as part of his experience around the world.
"If she was up by 20 points, I doubt those words ever would have crossed her lips," said Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's losing campaign in 2004. He said he detected a "sense of foreboding" from the Clinton campaign after having failed to gain ground in recent weeks.
The campaigns of all three front-runners predict that as caucus day draws closer, the second-tier candidates will begin to lose support to the top three. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has consistently polled in fourth place, packed in eight campaign stops on Saturday, four on Sunday and another three scheduled for Monday.
"I feel that Iowans are taking a second look at other candidates like myself because they're getting tired of the Washington media and the pollsters saying the race is over and Senator Clinton is the victor," Richardson said in an interview Sunday. "There's a real undercurrent here of shopping around."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report from Iowa.