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For Democrats, Change Is of the Essence

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John Edwards launches a 36-hour non-stop campaign swing in Ames, Iowa, while The Post's Anne Kornblut assesses the state of the Democratic race. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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By Jonathan Weisman
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Democratic nomination fight once appeared to be a contest over issues: the Iraq war, Iran, universal health care and economic uncertainty. But as the candidates' positions have melded, they have found themselves agreeing that voters are ready for the changes they are all proposing -- but fighting fiercely over who can deliver.

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To Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, it takes experience in the policy trenches of Washington to effect the shifts in health care, economic and foreign policies that Democratic voters are demanding of their president. To Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, that kind of experience is a hindrance, not a help, because exposure to the policy elites diminishes creativity and creates ties to the status quo that are not easily broken. And to former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, experience is beside the point. Change comes through a passion for battle.

"Iraq is still a pretty important issue for Democratic voters and caucusgoers. There's health care, the economy," said Clinton campaign communications director Howard Wolfson. "But I think it is fair to say the overall desire for change out there is now the overwhelming driver."

All sides agree the electorate at least says it is in no mood for a candidate that embodies the status quo, or even incremental movement. Last month, Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff asked voters whether they felt the country needs to keep a steady course, with small adjustments; whether America needs to turn the page and start a new chapter, with moderate policy corrections; or whether the country needs major reforms and "a brand new and different approach" to the problems the United States faces. Twenty-four percent wanted small adjustments. Twenty-nine percent wanted to turn the page. Forty-six percent said they want a brand new book.

A poll released New Year's Eve by the Des Moines Register showed the same thing: When asked to choose, likely caucusgoers are more apt to desire change than an impeccable r¿sum¿. Obama has the edge on change and Clinton holds a large advantage on experience.

As the fresh face in the race who is proclaiming he is beyond partisan politics, "Obama is reading the mood correctly and is playing in a field which is perfectly tuned for 2008," Hart said. "But against that is a second element: We're in a scary time. As much as we want change, we want change with a sense of self-confidence."

That dichotomy crystallizes just why Obama and Clinton seem to be so deadlocked, said Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), an Obama supporter with a political ear to the ground in the Granite State. In 2004, Hodes ran against Republican Charles Bass and was crushed by 20 percentage points. In his 2006 rematch, he won by 8 percentage points.

"If you have one candidate selling her experience working within government -- 'I lived in the White House, and I know what you need' -- versus another candidate saying, 'I organized communities, I know what people are thinking and I'm a relative newcomer to Washington who's seen enough to know things aren't working there,' that's a powerful choice," Hodes said.

But, he added, it's not one with a clear winner.

"We have a chemical in our brain that preserves the status quo," Hodes said. "While we may want change and know we need the change, sometimes it's hard medicine to swallow."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), whose own attempt to present himself as the most experienced Democratic candidate in the race has had little success, made clear last week that he does not think either Obama or Clinton -- or, for that matter, Edwards -- has much to point to as a senator.

"John doesn't have a record in the Senate. John's only passed four bills. They're all about post offices. I mean, literally," said Biden, elected in 1972 and the longest-serving member of Congress running for president this year. "Most freshmen senators don't get much done. Don't get much passed. Barack Obama hasn't passed any. There's not a major bill I know with Hillary's name on it."


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