As Iowa Race Tightens, Clinton Decides the Best Defense Is a Good Offense

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 3 -- Just two months ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York appeared to have turned a corner in Iowa. Now, as the race here enters its final month, she is once again fighting to fend off concerns that have dogged her from the start of her campaign in the state.

"Around the time of the October poll, what preceded it was sort of a golden age for her," said J. Ann Selzer, the director of the respected Iowa Poll. "She was in control of the message, the debates were going well and she was grinding down the naysayers. It sounds like it didn't take much for that image to stumble. All those things that were lurking there have come back."

Selzer described a cluster of concerns that voters here have about Clinton. She is seen as capable, experienced and the most knowledgeable about the world. But her negatives are significantly higher than those of any of her leading rivals. Asked which candidate they would be most disappointed to see as their nominee in the Iowa Poll, Democrats put Clinton at the top of the list, with 27 percent citing her. "That's more people saying she would be the worst choice than who say would be the best choice," Selzer said. She called it "that 'ick' factor."

Clinton's response has been to turn aggressive. For the second day in a row, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in national polls sharply attacked her leading rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, using some of the harshest language of the campaign. Arguing that her campaign is in a "very strong position," Clinton hammered Obama for offering "false hopes" rather than action. She predicted that voters will want, in her words, "a doer, not a talker."

Obama offered only the briefest of responses at an event in Des Moines on Monday. "It's silly season," he said. "I understand she's been quoting my kindergarten teacher in Indonesia," a reference to an essay titled "I Want to Become President" that Obama supposedly wrote as a child. He declined to say anything more.

The state with the nation's first caucuses remains a three-way contest between Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. Though the race is close, Obama is now seen by strategists here as the candidate with momentum, while questions about Clinton's candidacy have reappeared to haunt her in the homestretch.

The turnabout in two months is revealing. In October, the Iowa Poll taken for the Des Moines Register showed Clinton gaining ground on her rivals and leading with 29 percent. Edwards was at 23 percent and Obama at 22 percent. The latest survey, released on Sunday, showed Obama rising to 29 percent, Clinton slipping slightly to 25 percent and Edwards holding steady.

Clinton advisers say her tougher rhetoric is not a result of the new poll but rather the consequence of weeks of assaults on her by Obama and Edwards. "They've launched a number of attacks," said Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist. "She's going to respond to those attacks."

Had she not been forced to cancel her speech at the Democratic National Committee on Friday because of a hostage situation at her campaign office in Rochester, N.H., she would have gone directly at Obama in that forum, aides said. On Monday, elements of that speech were incorporated into remarks delivered in Clear Lake, Iowa, and they were among the fiercest of the campaign.

Clinton mocked Obama's relative lack of experience, and his ambition, saying he had started running for president the moment he arrived in the Senate, barely three years ago. "How did running for president become a qualification for being president?" Clinton asked.

She accused Obama of avoiding taking principled stands, saying he had voted "present," not yes or no, repeatedly during his time in the Illinois General Assembly. And she made a counterargument to Obama's claim that he would best represent change. She did not utter his name, but left no doubt about whom she was describing.

Clinton said it is curious that "those of us who have been fighting and winning these battles are not the right ones to take our country forward," adding that she "respectfully disagrees" with the assertion that "if you want change, you need to get someone with less, not more, experience."

Penn said the goal is to prevent the caucuses from becoming a referendum on Clinton and forcing voters to make a choice among candidates whose weaknesses and strengths have been put on public display. He also argued that Obama and Edwards have been judged less harshly than Clinton when they have stumbled in debates or on the campaign trail.

"This has to become a more level playing field where the same standards are applied," Penn said. "When those standards are applied, what will come into focus is that these character attacks [against Clinton] are false. . . . She'll be able to move forward."

One puzzling shift in new polling of Iowa Democrats is a decline in Clinton's once-clear advantage among female voters. In the October Iowa poll, she led Obama among women, 34 percent to 21 percent. The new poll showed Obama with 31 percent to Clinton's 26 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month showed Clinton and Obama running even among women, in contrast to sizable advantages she has with women in national and other state polls.

Clinton advisers argue that, in the end, women will make the difference in Iowa and that Clinton will win more of their votes than any other candidate. Christie Vilsack, the wife of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and a Clinton supporter, said she thinks polls are missing many of the women who are likely to turn out for Clinton.

Penn said he thinks Clinton can rebuild whatever support she might have lost with that critical constituency. "Because many voters in the primary cycle swing back and forth as they learn new information, the easiest to get back in the final month are those voters who supported you in the past," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company