Obama, Edwards Fight Over 'Change'

By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 29, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 28 -- Less than a week before voting begins, former senator John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama are engaged in an increasingly pointed duel over which man is the true messenger of "change" in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- with both drawing heavily from Bill Clinton's themes during his first campaign for the White House.

The two are battling on a trio of fronts, with each seeking ownership of the change issue, targeting Democrats who have ruled out supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and courting other candidates' backers who may be forced to make a second choice on caucus night (under caucus rules, a candidate must get 15 percent of a precinct to gain delegates, and supporters of nonviable candidates often switch).

Edwards remains strong in Iowa and is receiving a boost from outside groups running advertisements on his behalf. That external help has become a flash point between Edwards (N.C.) and Obama (Ill.), who has publicly deplored the anti-Obama ads and mailings.

In a speech Friday, Edwards launched a fresh effort to convince Iowans that he would be an aggressive advocate, comparing his fight for the middle class to the Revolutionary War.

"When America was founded, there were people who wanted to negotiate with King George. Imagine if we had followed that path," Edwards said.

While Edwards is in the midst of a "Fighting for the Middle Class" tour, Obama is holding "Stand for Change" events. Both themes can be traced to 1992, when Bill Clinton, then a young Arkansas governor, challenged the status quo and President George H.W. Bush while speaking pointedly to middle-class voters about their economic fortunes.

Edwards is launching an "Ask John" campaign, soliciting questions in all of Iowa's 99 counties (a move that his advisers insist is not prompted by news that Hillary Clinton is no longer taking questions at her events). In a sign of confidence, he is also airing ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the states with contests immediately after Iowa's, in which he promises to wage an "epic battle" to save the middle class.

But with Clinton dominating the issue of experience, change remains the central battleground for Edwards and Obama. In Friday's speech outlining his effort to fight for middle-class workers, Edwards described major turning points in U.S. history as times when people were forced to wage a battle rather than compromise. His advisers said the message is aimed as much at Clinton as at Obama, further highlighting the two-front war all three front-runners are waging.

Invoking history in his Dubuque address, Edwards said: "There were people who wanted to contain the trusts instead of bust the trusts. Imagine if we had followed that path. But look what happened when Americans of great conviction led America to stand up for its principles and reach for higher ground. We fought for change, and we changed history."

In an increasingly familiar dig at both Clinton and Obama, he continued: "Nobody who takes their money and defends the broken system is going to bring change. And unfortunately, nobody who thinks we can just sit down and talk them into compromise is going to bring change either. Why on Earth would we expect the corporate powers and their lobbyists -- who make billions by selling out the middle class -- to just give up their power because we ask them nicely?"

Edwards and Obama have built their campaigns around a similar premise: that Washington has been corrupted by entrenched special interests. But they offer it in starkly contrasting styles, with Edwards the angry populist who would break down the system by force, and Obama the reasonable mediator, nudging and negotiating his way to a deal.

But as Edwards has sharpened his blows in the closing days -- and remained very much a contender in the three-way race for Iowa -- Obama has toughened his own rhetoric.

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