Countdown to the Caucus

In the Iowa home stretch, Obama stays the course while Clinton scrambles to distinguish herself from her two competitors.

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AVOCA, IOWA — The last debate is over. The Des Moines Register‘s coveted endorsement has gone to Hillary Clinton. There are a mere 17 days left before the Iowa caucuses.

The candidates are officially in the home stretch, and the two leading Democrats, senators Barack Obama and Clinton, have honed their messages. Having risen 10 points in about two months, Obama has the luxury of merely fine-tuning a stump speech that has remained largely constant for more than a month. Clinton, though, has abandoned her ill-fated attempt to go negative against Obama and is instead promoting her long track record of working hard for people in need.

Obama has changed little about his campaign since November. He insists now, as he has for months, that ending the influence of lobbyists, reducing the power of special interests, and dissolving the legislative gridlock in Washington are the keys to making the government address the concerns of everyday people. “If we want to change outcomes,” he says, “we’ve got to change our politics.” He reiterates the idea that his election would be a break from the past and from the politics as usual that have disgusted Americans who “have lost trust in their government but want to believe again.” And the consistent messaging has worked. The attendees at Obama’s campaign events parrot his talking points so perfectly that they could double as campaign staffers. “He’s got a fresh perspective, different from the old Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton thing,” said one Obama supporter at a campaign stop in New Hampton, Iowa, on Saturday. Bob Friedman, who attended an Obama event in Waterloo, said Hillary Clinton is “just politics as usual.”

Clinton has reacted to her falling poll numbers by altering her speeches repeatedly. She went on the attack two weeks ago, saying, perhaps tongue in cheek, “Now the fun part starts.” High-minded contrasts on the candidates’ health care plans quickly devolved into opposition research papers on Obama’s kindergarten essays and questions about whether his overseas experience as a child is relevant to his foreign-policy experience. But the more Clinton attacked, the higher Obama went in the polls. As the candidate who supposedly is the best at rough-and-tumble politics—she brags on the stump that she went head-to-head with the Republican smear machine in the ’90s and came out on top—Clinton either misread the temperament of the Iowa electorate or executed her attacks so artlessly that they ended up working against her.

So now, Clinton, following the standard playbook, is leaving the attacks to her surrogates, including Bill Clinton, who called electing Obama “a roll of the dice,” and Billy Shaheen, her campaign’s New Hampshire cochair, who speculated that Obama may have sold drugs as a teenager. (Shaheen subsequently resigned from Clinton’s campaign.)

As Clinton began a final swing through Iowa on Sunday, she made no mention of her competitors in three stops near the Nebraska border. (Clinton was ferried to the events in a newly unveiled “Hill-a-copter.”) With the inevitability argument no longer operative—eviscerated by her dropping poll numbers—Clinton relied on her biography. “I am asking for your support based on my 35 years of work,” she told voters in Council Bluffs. In a sense, she got back to basics, once again reintroducing herself to the Iowans in attendance. With a measured pace and in a grave voice, she talked about working on behalf of children after leaving law school, reforming education as first lady of Arkansas, fighting for women’s rights across the globe as first lady of the nation, and about writing her book It Takes a Village. All of these things, she implied, required a strong work ethic and a willingness to sweat for everyday folks who need help.

And the emphasis on her good works ties into her only remaining attack on Obama and John Edwards. All of the Democrats in this race want change, she said repeatedly on Sunday. “Some people believe you make change by demanding it. Some people believe you make change by hoping for it. I believe you get [change] by working hard.”

“That work means knowing when to find common ground and when to stand your ground,” Clinton said. “If you are too unyielding,” she said, evoking Edwards and his hard-edged anti-corporate message, “you won’t get anything done. Not in America. We’re not a dictatorship.” But “if you don’t stand up and refuse to compromise on what’s important,” she added, referring to Obama and his conciliatory nature, “you could lose out the opportunity to make change. So you have to know how to balance it. How to stand your ground and how to find common ground. For thirty-five years I’ve been a change-maker.”

She was threading the needle, positioning herself between the candidate of confrontation (Edwards) and the candidate of hope (Obama). Forced onto the defensive, Clinton is now distinguishing herself as the porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold.

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