How Ugly Will the Democratic Race Get (Tonight and Afterward)?

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How nasty will it get in Vegas?

Tonight, the Democrats will gather in family-friendly Sin City for yet another debate, and as they prep for this face-off, John Edwards and Barack Obama must be calculating how far to go in assailing front-runner Hillary Clinton. And she must be wondering how sharp to be in return.

The latest Iowa poll from The New York Times and CBS News depicts the race in the Hawkeye State as virtually a three-way tie (Clinton, 25 percent; Edwards, 23 percent, and Obama, 22 percent). Such results presumably scare the Clinton machine. If she falls in Iowa, so too does her campaign’s double-sided argument of inevitability and electability. These poll numbers are obvious encouragement for the two men with the best shot of toppling her–and a sign that their recent moves might be working.

In the past week, both Obama and Edwards have intensified their attacks on Clinton. At the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner in Iowa on Saturday night, Obama, in a fiery speech, declared:

The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do in this election. That’s why not answering questions ’cause we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do. That’s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do. If we are really serious about winning this election Democrats, we can’t live in fear of losing it….

I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over….They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House….

I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans. When I am this party’s nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran….I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s.

Whether or not the tired Iowan Democrats realized it, this was all an attack on HRC the hawkish, triangulating, hyperpartisan kingpin of conventional, lobbyist-fueled Washington politics–though Obama never mentioned her by name. He was offering a contrast deeply unkind to Clinton without coming across as a slasher.

At the same dinner, Edwards went easy on Clinton, but in the days after he resumed his assault upon her. On Wednesday, he issued a press release challenging her to “stop defending Washington.” By that, he meant stop defending the politicians and lobbyists of the nation’s capital who plot together to screw working Americans. In another statement, he declared, “Voters have a clear choice between John Edwards, who will fight to finally pass universal health care, and Senator Clinton, who seems intent on defending the Washington establishment.” He also blasted her for greasing the path to war in Iran:

The war in Iraq isn’t even history yet, but the Bush Administration is repeating the march to war with Iran – and they’re getting help from a person who should know a lot better – Senator Clinton. On Saturday at the Iowa Jefferson Jackson dinner, Senator Clinton unveiled her new campaign slogan to ‘turn up the heat’ on the Republicans. Well, somebody will have to tell me how you ‘turn up the heat’ by voting with Bush, Cheney and the neocons on their path to war with Iran. Because I don’t believe that’s turning up the heat – I think that’s giving them exactly what they want.

For her part, Clinton at the Iowa dinner asserted that change without experience is no formula for success–an obvious dig at Obama.

With the race tightening, the mounting pressure could blow the lid of the pot at the Las Vegas debate, which is supposed to focus on matters of specific interest to the West (say water rights, not the number of lobbyists collecting campaign cash for Clinton). Up to now, Obama has said nothing that would prevent Clinton from choosing him as a running mate should she prevail. He has insisted he’s not interested in running for veep. But who knows? He also has his politics-of-hope, bringing-folks-together rep to maintain. And that could cause him to limit his assaults on Clinton. Will he cross a line as the January 3 Iowa caucus cometh? Tonight would be the time to do so.

As for Edwards, he clearly has no interest in repeating a run as No. 2. And as an ex-senator, he need not fret about senatorial courtesy. Consequently, he has more freedom to slam Clinton. But does this former trial lawyer want to play junkyard-dog prosecutor and do the dirty work only to create an opening for Obama the nice guy?

Meanwhile, will Hillary swing harder at the foes she has previously preferred to ignore? She cannot afford more slippage in the Iowa polls. In the course of this race, Clinton has consistently put in just-fine performances at the debates–until the last one, when she stumbled over a question about New York State issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Does she have to brandish more muscle now?

The politerati will be poised for a three-person slugfest this evening. If that happens, it will be personal, for the policy differences among the three (despite all the roaring) are not that great. They all say they want out of the Iraq war. Clinton’s and Edwards’ health-care proposals are, to the naked eye, virtually identical. Each of these candidates calls for energy independence and protecting Social Security from privatization. There are distinctions. Edwards wants to send Washington lobbyists to Gitmo; HRC relies on Washington influence-peddlers for political money. But my hunch is that the strategists of three camps realize that Democratic voters will make their decisions based on the impressions they have of the leadership potential of the three main contenders. That means the attacks–if they do come–will have to target the person, not his or her policy positions. And that means, the race will get ugly. After all, in politics candidates tend to win by beating their rivals.


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