Gloves off as time runs out for Obama
HE CAN draw a crowd of 20,000 people to hear him speak and he's built the largest fund-raising machine in American political history. But despite the hype and the clamour for change across the United States, Senator Barack Obama is still eclipsed by his great rival Hillary Clinton in every national opinion poll.
Now, just 10 weeks before the first votes are held in the race to win the Democratic party's presidential nomination, time is running out for the Obama campaign to make its move.
Despite the prospect of making history as the first African-American president, Obama has failed to convince the political elite that he has what it takes to become president.
The Illinois senator talks about bringing change and leading a new kind of politics, but Obama has been criticised for failing to throw enough punches on the campaign trail, prompting whispers in Washington that he is not suited to the rough and tumble of presidential politics. "Everyone knows Hillary will do whatever it takes to win. Can you say that about Obama? There's a question mark about him," said a Democratic aide to a rival campaign. "How badly does he want it?"
Until now Obama has preferred not to criticise Clinton directly. Instead he has talked blandly about how he is different from the other candidates. But the polls have forced him to abandon the moral high ground for more traditional, sharp-elbowed tactics.
A national poll conducted for Fox News found that 50% of Democrats support Clinton compared to just 18% who back Obama. Those numbers have not shifted significantly in a month.
"Hillary is not the first politician in Washington to declare 'Mission Accomplished' a little too soon," Obama told Jay Leno on the Tonight Show.
Beefing up his campaign staff, Obama has hired John del Cecato, a veteran Democratic strategist, to run a rapid- response unit defending him from attacks from Clinton's campaign. The move ends Obama's strategy of rising above the petty squabbling and is a declaration of intent.
Obama is now arguing that Clinton is a Washington insider beholden to business and lobbying interests. "Washington lobbyists have chosen their candidate and are determined to provide her with an advantage," he said.
Obama will also argue that he alone can unite the country, pointing out that the prospect of a Clinton presidency helps Republicans raise money and that Republicans may prefer to run against a known enemy such as Clinton than an unknown quantity such as Obama.
"The argument with Hillary right now in some of these red [ie, Republican] states is she's so damn unpopular. I think Hillary is someone who could drive folks on the other side out to vote who otherwise wouldn't," said Andy Arnold, a leading Democratic official in South Carolina.
Obama also accused Clinton of inconsistency on Iran. Earlier this summer, Clinton criticised Obama's alleged naivety when he suggested that he would talk one to one to the Iranians in the first year of his presidency. Yet last week Clinton said her administration would also be open to negotiations with Tehran.
Obama warned that Clinton's foreign policy endangered the US. "Many Republicans and even a few Democrats refuse to admit the mistake they made five years ago. And now we're seeing history repeat itself as the drumbeat builds for a war with Iran," he said.
Still, a future conflict with Iran looms less prominently in Obama's campaign rhetoric than Clinton's decision to authorise the use of force in Iraq. Obama is trusting that although 50% of Democrats also initially supported military action against Saddam Hussein the party as a whole will not forgive Clinton's hawkish stance.
"Senator Clinton says that she wasn't really voting for war back in 2002, she was voting for more inspections, or she was voting for more diplomacy," Obama said last week. "But all of us know what was being debated in the Congress in the fall of 2002. No one thought Congress was debating whether or not to conduct diplomacy. The headlines on October 12, 2002 did not read: 'Congress authorises diplomacy with Iraq' - the headlines read: 'Congress backs war.'"
An Obama campaign memo insists that the national polls should be discounted since most voters have not been paying close attention to the campaign.
Even a single state defeat, the Obama campaign believes, could fatally wound Clinton. Consequently Obama is betting his entire campaign on victory in January's Iowa caucuses.
However, the extent to which Clinton enjoys a prodigious lead was made clear when John Lewis, the most distinguished and influential veteran of the civil rights movement in Congress, rebuffed Obama's overtures and endorsed Clinton.
"Hillary Clinton is the best [candidate] prepared to lead this country at a time when we are in desperate need of strong leadership," he said.
Lewis's move reflects the growing sense among many African-American voters that Obama won't win; better to sign up with the winner than endorse Obama simply because he's black.
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