Clinton facing tougher attacks

Obama, Edwards step up criticism as Iowa caucuses near

November 12, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

DES MOINES, Iowa -- It was approaching midnight when Barack Obama climbed onto the spotlighted stage in a darkened Iowa arena and unleashed his most sweeping attack yet on Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was seated nearby.

With surgical precision, he struck at many of her perceived weaknesses in the Democratic primary race, including "voting like George Bush Republicans" on Iraq and Iran and adopting evasive, "poll-driven" positions on issues. To roars of approval from supporters, Obama said it was time to replace "the same old Washington textbook campaigns" with "change that is not just a slogan."

But his performance was matched, if not surpassed, by Clinton's own speech, minutes earlier, before the same boisterous crowd of 9,000 activists -- another reminder, if one were needed, of the tough challenge her rivals face in trying to overtake her.

Last week, when Clinton said in Iowa that "we are getting toward the end of a very long presidential primary process," it wasn't a slip of the tongue. For a year or more, the candidates have been running hard, especially in the early primary states.

Now, the first real test of 2008, Iowa's caucuses, is just over seven weeks away, and the campaign has entered a new, and potentially decisive, phase.

Clinton seems to have the early advantage everywhere it matters, except in Iowa, where she's in a tight three-way race with Obama and John Edwards. Her opponents are stepping up their attacks.

Edwards, whose political career could be at an end if he fails to win Iowa, is her most aggressive rival. At campaign stops, he tries to play on voter doubts about her trustworthiness and criticizes her for siding with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Iran.

But Edwards, who finished a close second to John Kerry in the caucuses four years ago, has slipped in recent months, after leading in the early polls. Some of his supporters are turning to Clinton, who has put together what might be the most extensive organizing effort this state has seen.

A clear-cut Clinton victory in the caucuses would virtually assure her the nomination, many analysts and Democratic politicians have said, since she currently leads in New Hampshire, which is expected to hold its primary Jan. 8, just five days after Iowa.

In her speech to the partisan crowd in Des Moines, she drew an implicit contrast with Obama, who is less than halfway through his freshman Senate term, and her own years as first lady and, since 2001, as a senator from New York.

Vowing to "turn up the heat" on the Republicans in next year's election, Clinton argued that she has what it takes to end the war in Iraq and fix many of the nation's toughest problems, including overhauling the health care system.

"Change is just a word if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen," she said in her Saturday night speech.

Her opponents have accused Clinton of ducking tough questions, a line of attack fed by her refusal, in a recent TV debate, to clearly state her position on giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

In her speech, Clinton responded by saying that "there are some who will say they don't know where I stand. Well, I think you know better than that. ... I stand with you," drawing loud cheers.

In spite of her position as the Democratic front-runner, much of Clinton's support remains soft -- though polls indicate that, in most cases, she has more solid backing than her rivals.

Interviews with voters at Iowa campaign events illustrated some of the reasons for those doubts, including the driver's license question (she says she "broadly" supports efforts by states to deal with problems caused by illegal immigration, such as unlicensed drivers).

"It made me reassess a little bit," said Jerry Pierson, 67, of Laurel, a retired factory worker, who doesn't like the idea.

Audrey Musgrove, 69, of Sully, a retired public school secretary, thinks Clinton would make a good president but added, "I just don't know if I want to hear all that baggage for another four years."

Musgrove and Pierson came to hear Clinton discuss her energy plans and answer questions from voters at a Newton, Iowa, biodiesel plant. The event became an embarrassment for Clinton several days later, after the student newspaper at nearby Grinnell College reported that a campaign aide had planted a question about global warming with a student in the audience, then prompted Clinton to call on her. Clinton's campaign confirmed the report, after initially denying it.

Other Democrats said they worry about whether she's too polarizing to win a general election or are re-evaluating their support in light of recent events.

Fereleen Acton, 67, who lives on a farm near Rippey, Iowa, says she's undecided after initially favoring Clinton.

"I liked her till she gave Bush that vote on Iraq," she said.

Ann Valenta, 60, of Solon, a retired high school Spanish teacher, thinks Clinton is "very savvy," adding, "I am concerned, though, because she is very polarizing."

She and her husband, Steve, came to hear Clinton at a restored dairy barn in Amana, a 19th-century commune founded by German Pietists, who believed that the holy spirit could inspire individuals to speak.

Clinton delivered remarks from a small stage surrounded by hay bales and tiny American flags, then invited questions.

"I watched the last debate, and I was troubled about your answer, you know the one," said supporter Maria Conzemius, a former social worker from Iowa City. "I know what your problem was. You were thinking in the present. You're thinking in terms of, Bush has not fixed our borders, what do we do with all these people who don't have a license?"

"That was a good answer. You should have been with me at the debate," responded Clinton, who explained her stance on immigration without mentioning driver's licenses, then cut off further questions.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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