By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Dec. 2 -- With a new poll showing her losing ground in the Iowa caucus race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) mounted a new, more aggressive attack against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Sunday, raising direct questions about his character, challenging his integrity and forecasting a sharp debate over those subjects in the days ahead.
Clinton has hammered Obama recently over his health-care proposal, arguing that he is misleading voters because it omits millions of people and would not lower costs. But Sunday, in a dramatic shift, she made it clear that her goal is to challenge Obama not just on policy but also on one of his strongest selling points: his reputation for honesty.
"There's a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for," Clinton told reporters here. She said voters in Iowa will have a choice "between someone who talks the talk, and somebody who's walked the walk."
Asked directly whether she intended to raise questions about Obama's character, she replied: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."
The Obama campaign quickly fought back, and the candidate himself called the new effort a sign of desperation. A new Des Moines Register poll released Sunday finds Clinton three points behind Obama, within the poll's margin of error, among likely Democratic caucusgoers.
"I think that folks from some of the other campaigns are reading the polls and starting to get stressed and issuing a whole range of outlandish accusations," Obama said. His advisers -- and some of hers -- believe that if Clinton loses the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, her status as the front-runner nationally will evaporate.
On the Republican side, the Register's poll showed a continuing surge for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who described his campaign as "on fire." Huckabee garnered the support of 29 percent of respondents, 17 points better than in the previous poll. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pulled in 24 percent, a drop of five points.
The survey marked the first time Romney has slipped from the lead in the state since early summer. The result is a dramatic shift in the Republican contest, which had been shaping up as a nasty, two-man race between Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
As a consequence, Romney has begun to turn his attacks toward Huckabee as he faces the prospect of losing a state that he spent millions to win. That would be a devastating blow to Romney's strategy of minimizing his lackluster performance in national polls by pointing to his enduring strength in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Huckabee said on ABC's "This Week," "That's why there's an excitement about my campaign. It's just not about Mike Huckabee. It's about all those Americans out there who were told what they couldn't do, what they couldn't become."
The new Clinton strategy, acknowledged by her senior advisers as an intentional pivot, carries significant risks and could produce a potential backlash if voters perceive her as growing too negative. The Register's poll also found that Clinton was seen by Iowa voters as the most negative of the Democratic contenders.
Obama had the support of 28 percent of respondents, up six points from the last Register poll, in early October. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) drew 23 percent. Clinton was in the middle at 25 percent, down four points from early October. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.
Clinton, campaigning across Iowa on Sunday, appeared to be spoiling for a fight with her chief Democratic rival in national polls -- even at one point describing the battle as "fun."
"I have said for months that I would much rather be attacking Republicans, and attacking the problems of our country, because ultimately that's what I want to do as president. But I have been, for months, on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks. Well, now the fun part starts. We're into the last month, and we're going to start drawing the contrasts," she said.
That drew a swift rebuke from Obama. "This presidential campaign isn't about attacking people for fun, it's about solving people's problems, like ending this war and creating a universal health care system," he said in a statement. "Washington insiders might think throwing mud is fun, but the American people are looking for leadership that can unite this country around a common purpose."
Obama advisers described the strategy as foolhardy, and reminiscent of the approach perfected by former Bush White House adviser Karl Rove: going after a front-runner on his strengths and challenging his sincerity.
The intensified back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama appeared certain to aggravate the Edwards campaign, which is combating the perception of a two-person race in Iowa when polls show that he is still very much in contention.
Clinton advisers had telegraphed her new, hard-knuckled approach before she brought it to the campaign trail herself.
On a Sunday talk show, communications director Howard Wolfson criticized the Illinois senator for using a political action committee to distribute money to candidates in local contests, some in early presidential primary states. "There's a lot that voters don't know about Barack Obama," Wolfson said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
The Clinton campaign has been steadily building what it describes as a character case against Obama for several weeks, particularly over his health-care plan. Clinton has argued that he is being disingenuous when he claims his plan would achieve universal coverage.
Obama's plan would not mandate that all people buy health insurance; instead it focuses on lowering costs. Strategists said Clinton chose health care as a target area because she believes she has a large advantage on the issue among many voters.
Sunday, however, marked the first time that Clinton raised the character question so bluntly on the campaign trail. In a question-and-answer session with reporters after her first stop, she said that "you can't get a straight answer" from Obama on health care.
Clinton advisers said they make no apology for going on the offensive after months of criticism by both Obama and Edwards. "Senator Obama is a fabulous orator, but we need more than words," Wolfson said in an interview. "We don't need someone who says one thing and does another, somebody who talks a good game but doesn't have the courage of their convictions. And on issue after issue, Senator Obama says one thing and does another."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear in Washington contributed to this report.