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The New Ground Game
The polls, though notoriously unreliable in nominating contests, suggest that Obama is at last gaining some traction. Every survey out of Iowa shows the race a tight, three-way fight between Obama, Clinton and former Senator John Edwards, but growing numbers of voters there are rating the need for new direction and new ideas as more important than strength and experience. The question is whether Obama's newfound aggressiveness will undermine his image as the candidate of a new kind of politics. Meanwhile, Clinton's formidable lead in New Hampshire has dropped by nearly half, to 14 points in the latest CNN/WMUR survey, conducted by the University of New Hampshire. More telling is what is happening on the ground: in the past three weeks, Clinton has nearly doubled the size of her late-out-of-the-gate field operation in Iowa, adding about 100 new people, though she still has not caught up with the forces that Obama has had in place pretty much since June. She is also intensifying her travel schedule in Iowa (she has visited only 39 counties to his 68, by the Obama campaign's calculation) and her advertising (which has lagged his she has spent $3.7 million to his $5.4 million).
Clinton's allies are revising and stepping up their game plans. Emily's List, the political network of pro-choice Democratic women, had planned to put its money into helping Clinton in the big states that vote on Feb. 5 but is now moving its resources into Iowa. The Clinton campaign "clearly thought [it was] on a glide path to the nomination, and that has been disrupted," crows Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "They're going to bring in the cavalry."
But if Clinton has a lot staked on Iowa, her opponents all do as well. If one of them can't manage to at least nick her there, she will come out of that contest all but unstoppable for the nomination. Even Obama admits, "We have to do well. I don't think there's a candidate who can do poorly in Iowa and end up winning the nomination."
As Obama takes the fight to Clinton, there is no small danger that he could be tarnishing the very qualities that have made him so appealing and fresh. A candidate who is engaged in the ritualized back-and-forth that characterizes close campaigns has a harder time making the case that he rejects the old gambits of politics as usual. "They've junked the politics of hope," says Wolfson. "His whole brand was based on that." Obama insists his shift to the offensive doesn't conflict with his new-politics appeal: "I don't feel as if any of the differences that have been raised on my end have been gratuitous, and frankly, I don't feel that any of the differences that Senator Clinton has been pointing out have been gratuitous. It's perfectly legitimate for her to suggest that I don't have enough experience to be President. She's been in Washington for 15 years; it's not surprising that she would see that as important. I don't consider that out of bounds in any sort of way."
If Obama's offensive risks tainting his image as an above-the-fray candidate, he at least starts with a reservoir of high favorability numbers: in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll of likely Iowa voters, 31% found Obama to be the most honest and trustworthy Democratic candidate about twice the number who said that of Clinton and three-quarters gave him credit for being candid.
At the same time, Obama's attacks, and those of Edwards, have given Clinton a license to respond in ways that would otherwise be unseemly for a front runner. "It's time. I have absorbed a lot of attacks for several months now my opponents have basically had a free rein," Clinton told CBS's Katie Couric in an interview. "After you've been attacked as often as I have from several of my opponents, you can't just absorb it you have to respond." She has been particularly aggressive in going after Obama on health care, saying that his plan the only one put forward by the top three contenders that does not contain a requirement that people buy coverage if their employers don't provide it is timid.