WITH just eight weeks of campaigning before the first votes are cast in the race to become the Democratic party's next presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama has launched a scathing attack on his rival Hillary Clinton for the first time, accusing her of "ducking the issues" and failing to tell the truth to the American people.
Mr Obama's decision to go on the offensive marks a change in strategy for a campaign that has hitherto preferred to preach an inclusive message offering what the Illinois senator likes to call "the politics of hope".
Until now, Mr Obama has declined to criticise Mrs Clinton directly, choosing instead to make oblique references to the "Washington establishment" and "special interests" that, he says, are afraid of real change in the capital. Mr Obama has now admitted he must make "distinctions" between himself and Mrs Clinton "clearer," and he promised: "I will not shy away from doing that."
Mrs Clinton's commanding lead in the polls has forced Mr Obama to change tack. Taking an average of recent polls, the former First Lady enjoys leads of 5 per cent in Iowa, 18 per cent in New Hampshire and 13 per cent in South Carolina - the first three, crucial contests in January.
"The campaign has to develop a level of aggressiveness and intensity that I'm not sure we've seen yet. If he's playing to win, they are going to have to ratchet it up," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN.
In an interview in yesterday's The New York Times, Mr Obama was asked if he thought his rival had offered a truthful vision of what she would do as president. "No," said Mr Obama. "I don't think people know what her agenda exactly is."
At a campaign rally in Iowa on Saturday, Mr Obama said Mrs Clinton's attitude to answering questions about her core policy beliefs amounted to: "You should hedge, dodge and spin, but at all costs, don't answer."
Although he acknowledged the Clinton campaign had been "very deft politically" he told the paper that "we've got to be clear with the American people" rather than "try to obfuscate and avoid being a target in the general election and then find yourself governing without any support for any bold propositions".
Mr Obama warned Democrats his rival is a uniquely divisive figure whose presence on the general election ballot could hand Republicans victory. "If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, then we have a repetition of 2000 and 2004," he said. "There's no change in the political map. I'm not making predictions specifically about which way [the key states of] Ohio or Florida will go, but what you do know is that 45 per cent of the country will be on one side and 45 per cent of the country will be on the other."
"I don't think it's realistic that she is going to get a whole bunch of Republicans to think differently about her," he added.
Choosing Mrs Clinton as the party's nominee risked reopening old wounds from her husband's eight years in the Oval Office, he said. But Mr Obama acknowledged Mrs Clinton was the choice of the party's establishment. "There is a legacy that is both an enormous advantage to her in a Democratic primary, but also a disadvantage to her in a general election. She represents a lot of old arguments."
The Obama campaign has been critical of what it sees as Mrs Clinton's less than transparent record on national security. She has not apologised for her vote authorising the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power, though she insists that her vote was not tantamount to handing President George W Bush a blank cheque.
The Clinton campaign argues Mr Obama's more aggressive approach is a sign of desperation. "Now that his campaign has stalled he is ... engaging in the same old personal attacks that he once rejected," said Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman. "We are confident voters will reject this strategy, especially from a candidate who told us he would do better."
"Obama is in a tough spot. He has to be very careful about how he handles himself from here on forward," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "He can't turn himself into just another politician. His entire attraction is that he is different."
DELEGATES to Democrat and Republican party conventions are selected through direct primary elections, state caucuses and state conventions.
The process begins in December, with early voting in California and several other states.
A decisive date looks set to be 5 February, 2008, one month before the traditional Super Tuesday, as up to 20 states are moving to hold their primaries then.
Obama on Clinton
“You should hedge, dodge and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer”
On her policies
“I think her judgment was flawed on this issue”
On Clinton’s 2002 vote for using force against Iraq
“The same old experience is not relevant – you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience”
Throwing a Bill Clinton quote back at his wife
“There is a legacy that is both an enormous advantage to her in a Democratic primary, but also a disadvantage to her in a general election”
On Clinton's polarising effect
Clinton on Obama
“That was irresponsible and, frankly, nave”
On Obama saying he’d meet the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea if elected
“You can think big, but remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences around the world”
On Obama saying he’d send US troops into Pakistan to target militants
“Senator Obama once promised Americans a politics of hope. But now that his campaign has stalled he is abandoning that”