In Iowa, the Democrats Get Harsher

As lots of undecideds remain, the candidates refine their messages to make a breakout.


DES MOINES—Barack Obama delivered the best speech and the largest, most ardent brigade of supporters Saturday when thousands of Iowa Democrats gathered to hear from the party's top six presidential candidates. And the raves rolled in.

But by the next morning, after a flat and ambivalent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, the Obama narrative had already subtly shifted.

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton traveled to Waterloo and marked Veterans Day in Iowa by trumpeting that a half a dozen high-ranking war veterans had endorsed her.

But later, Clinton, dogged by reports that her campaign had planted audience questions during at least two of her appearances in the state, was forced to promise that the practice would stop.

With many undecided voters still up for grabs, a war of accretion has broken out here in the Hawkeye State, 52 days before the state's crucial caucuses. And with the top three Democratic presidential candidates—Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards—locked in a dead-heat race and sharing remarkably similar positions on the major issues, the breakout imperative has injected a new, harsher tone into this contest of increments.

And this week, Obama and Edwards, both trailing Clinton badly in national polls, have decided to reach back to the 1990s and the Clinton administration to make their cases against the New York senator and former first lady.

The phrase "vast right-wing conspiracy" wasn't part of Obama's script Saturday night. But he characterized the Clinton era of 1990s as an incubator of political divisions that cripple the country to this day. Obama is gambling that voters will make the calculation that a Hillary Clinton presidency would continue Washington gridlock and political polarization.

"I don't want to spend four more years fighting the same fights we fought in the 1990s," he said Saturday. "I don't want to pit red against blue."

It could prove to be a risky gamble here, where Bill Clinton remains a popular and effective campaigner for his wife and where, as longtime state Sen. Mike Connolly, a Clinton supporter, says: "I think most people look back at the Clinton years as eight years of prosperity and peace."

But Edwards is taking the same gamble: He has been hammering Clinton for failing to deliver on her 1990s healthcare initiative, despite having her husband in the White House and the Democrats in control of Congress. Edwards, whose campaign has shifted from his early "Two Americas" poverty theme to one of anticorruption, has ramped up his criticism of Clinton for failing to sear off campaign contributions from lobbyists. A Clinton presidency, he said in an appearance Sunday night in Dubuque, would be a surrender to the status quo.

As for Clinton, she's still attempting to sail above the daily fray.

"We have run a national campaign," says Terry McAuliffe, her national campaign chairman. "A couple of the campaigns have gotten a little frisky. Others have gone negative. We're not going to get down in the mud pit."

But with huge swaths of undecided Iowa Democrats starting to pay closer attention as the days to the caucus tick down, and attacks on the national front-runner continuing—from both her fellow Democrats and Republican hopefuls—it's unclear whether that strategy can be sustained.