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Caustic Clinton gets tough on Obama

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WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton has slipped menacingly into attack mode, one month before U.S. voters start picking 2008 presidential nominees, and the target for her deepest scorn is Democratic foe Barack Obama.

Analysts say Clinton’s aggressive, forensic examinations of Obama’s experience and character reflect the nerve-wracking volatility of the race in Iowa, which holds its leadoff caucus contests on Jan. 3.

The former first lady, who had looked set to cruise to the nomination, is facing a fierce fight in the state that could set the tone for the flurry of nominating clashes to come.

“I think that to a great extent, one of the rationales for joining the campaign has been the belief that they foster, that she is an inevitable nominee,” said Professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University in Iowa. “As the race continues to be fluid and unsettled, the air goes out of that claim.”

Clinton signaled a clear change of tack, after months spent barely mentioning her opponents, during a campaign swing through Iowa on Sunday.

“Well, now the fun part starts,” Clinton said.

“We’re into the last month, and we’re going to start drawing a contrast, because I want every Iowan to have accurate information when they make their decisions.”

Clinton’s plight in Iowa — where she is locked in a tight three-way race with Obama and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards — is distinct from the race as a whole, where she leads most state and all national polls.

But the unanswered question is whether a disappointment in Iowa would hurt the former first lady elsewhere.

Clinton is conducting a point-by-point breakdown of Obama’s character, consistency and perceived lack of experience as a first term senator already running for president.

“This is not a job you can learn about from a book. It’s a job that starts on day one, with split-second decision making that can affect the lives of millions of people,” she said in Iowa on Monday.

While negative campaign tactics carry a risk, they can also work and help define a politician, even as he tries to put forward a differing picture to voters himself.
“As the polls have been tightening, it seems to be … a reasonable strategy to pursue, especially when you are not far and away the front-runner, as [Clinton] has been in other places and in national polls,” said Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos.

Her remarks followed a weekend of bitter sniping between the Obama and Clinton camps, which at one stage degenerated into a row over a kindergarten essay he apparently wrote entitled “I Want to Become President.”

Hostilities broke out Sunday after a poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa put Obama three percentage points ahead of Clinton in the run-up to the statewide caucuses.

The Clinton campaign trumpeted a Pew Research poll on Monday that showed Clinton in the lead, but the survey was conducted over a longer timeframe than the Register offering and may not have picked up any late Obama surge.

The former first lady is also meeting the rationale of one of Obama’s central charges head-on — that she is a symptom rather than a cure for broken politics in Washington, and is a source of deep polarization.

“There is a funny argument in fashion these days — it goes something like this — those of us who have been fighting and winning these battles are not the right ones to push our country forward,” she said.

“The idea goes that, if you want change, you need to get someone with less, not more, experience in actually making change happen,” she said. “Well, I respectfully disagree.”

Obama’s campaign, boosted by the Register poll, attributes Clinton’s new tough talk to anxiety that her campaign could grind to a halt in Iowa.

“Less than 12 hours after that poll came out, the Clinton campaign launched a series of baseless attacks against Senator Obama,” said campaign manager David Plouffe in a blog on the Obama campaign’s Web site. “Panicked by the poll numbers, they even attacked Barack for telling his kindergarten teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up.”

(Agence France-Presse)