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By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 14, 2007

When a Boy Scout sees an older woman, he helps her cross the street. In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama is no Boy Scout.

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The 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois, trying to topple the 60-year-old front-runner, never once utters the words "Hillary" or "Clinton." But the target of his stump speech is unmistakable -- and his derision is brutal.

"Triangulating the poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or what Rudy might say about us just won't do," he says.

Take that, ol' girl.

"I'm sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking and acting and voting like George Bush Republicans."

And there's more where that came from, granny.

"I don't want to spend 2008 fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s -- that's exactly what Mitt and Rudy want."

Wonder who he's talking about there? How about here: "I'm not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it's somehow owed to me."

Obama began his campaign with a slogan about "the audacity of hope." But he has, predictably, settled on a more conventional theme: the audacity of audacity. Americans may say they want upbeat candidates with gauzy rhetoric, but voters actually respond to negativity. He dresses up the attack with a light touch, a hip presence and lofty phrases. "Fired up!" was the first sentiment out of his mouth after "Thank you" when he spoke recently to the Democratic National Committee in Virginia.

Obama is arguably the best speaker in the presidential race, and his stump speech the most lyrical. "Our nation's at war, the planet is in peril, the dream that so many generations fought for feels as if it's slowly slipping away," he reports.

On the other hand, the achievements Obama has to tout are thin. "I've done more than any candidate in this race to actually take on lobbyists, and I've won," he boasts. Well, yes, he championed ethics reforms in the Senate but left much of the heavy lifting to others while he campaigned.

"I expanded health care in Illinois by bringing Democrats and Republicans together, by taking on the insurance industry," he asserts. Actually, his signature legislation as a state senator, the Health Care Justice Act, merely set up a panel to craft a plan.

Obama also sounds a bit green when he vows that "I will finish the fight against al-Qaeda" -- a battle nobody expects will wrap up in the next four years.

The candidate mixes a diet of red-meat policies (a higher minimum wage, more pay for teachers, universal health coverage) with a somewhat contradictory promise to change the political arithmetic by winning over Republicans. There's the obligatory Bush-bashing. But Obama's real target is Clinton.

"When I am this party's nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I supported Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders we don't like," he charges. "I don't want to see more American lives put at risk because no one had the judgment or the courage to stand up against a misguided war before we sent our troops in to fight."

Obama also has a pointed rejoinder to Clinton's "I'm in to win" slogan. "I'm in this race to take away those tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas," he answers. "That's why I'm in it. I'm in it because I want to stop the outrage of 47 million Americans without health care."

But make no mistake: Obama, too, is in to win. Otherwise he'd be helping that nice lady cross the street.


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