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Taking Aim at Clinton

Clinton, in Harlem this past weekend, will likely face personal criticism at tomorrow's debate. (Bloomberg).

Hillary Clinton should be prepared for a long night at Tuesday's Democratic debate. Having been the favorite target at the Republican debate in Orlando a week ago, the New York senator now faces up-close-and-personal criticism from her leading Democratic rivals in Philadelphia.

Obama tipped his hand over the weekend with an interview in the New York Times and some sharp words for Clinton while campaigning in Iowa. He accused Clinton of not being candid with voters on Iran, Iraq and Social Security and said she would not be able to unite the country if elected.

"'It is absolutely true that we have to make these distinctions clearer. And I will not shy away from doing that," he told the Times.

Edwards went to New Hampshire Monday for what aides called a major thematic speech in which Clinton was a major punching bag. Broadly he portrayed Washington as awash in corrupt relationships between lobbyists and politicians and then specifically put Clinton squarely in the nexus of that relationship.

"Senator Clinton's road to the middle class takes a major detour right through the deep canyon of corporate lobbyists and the hidden bidding of K Street in Washington - and history tells us that when that bus stops there it is the middle class that loses," he said, according to a prepared text distributed by his campaign.

If both Obama and Edwards stay true to this course, the Democratic race for president could have a different tone and feel by the end of this week, signaling what has become plainly obvious in a year in which one of the standard mantras has been: it's still early. In reality, the Iowa caucuses are now just nine weeks away.

The real question for Obama and Edwards is whether any of their criticisms will begin to stick. Obama has opened a new line of attack by arguing that Clinton is deliberately concealing her views on important issues and that she owes voters straightforward answers on big issues. He was particularly critical of her on the issue of Social Security, saying she has repeatedly ducked opportunities in debates and on the campaign trail to outline in more detail how she would fix the system.

But his other criticism, that Clinton is a polarizing candidate, is not new, and at a time when he and others have been marking that argument, Clinton has widened her lead nationally and in most states other than Iowa.

Edwards has drilled Clinton repeatedly for being too cozy with Washington lobbyists and the Washington establishment, arguing that the middle-class about whom she speaks so much will always be the losers in such an equation. Ever since Clinton defended lobbyists at the YearlyKos convention in Chicago last summer, Edwards has sought to peel away her support by casting her as the ultimate insider in a system that needs a radical overhaul.

He framed the choice for Democrats this way in his speech: "Down one path, we trade corporate Democrats for corporate Republicans; our cronies for their cronies; one political dynasty for another dynasty; and all we are left with is a Democratic version of the Republican corruption machine."

Edwards called that the easy path of following the status quo. But he said that would perpetuate "a corrupt system that has not only failed to deliver the change the American people demand, but has divided America into two - one America for the very greedy, and one America for everybody else."

The challenge for Obama and Edwards -- as for the other Democrats chasing Clinton -- is how best to force her to engage. Edwards has been far more direct than Obama in challenging Clinton during debates, most memorably when he attacked her for supporting a Senate amendment that urged the Bush administration to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.

Obama has delivered glancing blows but as he told the New York Times, he is reluctant "to kneecap the frontrunner" because he believes voters do not want to see that kind of destructive campaigning. Tuesday's debate will show whether he has found the formula to put her on the defensive and keep her there.

Edwards appears less concerned about perceived negativity, although he too has been respectful in his face-to-face encounters with Clinton. As he put it Monday in New Hampshire, after his wife Elizabeth was told earlier this year that her cancer had returned and spread, the two of them made a decision that they would "not go quietly into the night -- that we were going to stand and fight for what we believed in."

Tuesday night may still be too early to begin framing closing arguments for the Democratic race, for no matter what the national polls show, Clinton remains in a highly competitive race in Iowa. But in their tone and language, Edwards and Obama appear to sense that time is now their enemy, that they must change the dynamic soon. That could make Tuesday's a debate worth watching.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  October 29, 2007; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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