Sharpening Critiques Over Weekend in Iowa
IOWA CITY, IOWA--If you're trying to take down your opponents while remaining polite, you might sound like John Edwards did as he stumped through Eastern Iowa on Sunday.
"There's a proposed trade deal on Peru, which I'm opposed to. .. I have to tell you, I think Senator Obama is for it, but at least he's taken a position. Senator Clinton I don't think has taken a position," Edwards said.
"I'm proud of the fact that I was the first one to come out with a universal health care plan. Senator Obama has one and I applaud him for doing it. My plan is universal, his is not, it will leave millions of people without coverage, but good for him."
On a recent Senate vote that declared part of Iran's military as a terrorist organization, "Senator Clinton voted yes. She's completely entitled to her opinion, but you're entitled to know you have choices. I strongly disagree."
Welcome to the last two months before the Iowa caucuses, where with little time left before the voting, the candidates are not only campaigning more intensely than ever-- Clinton and Edwards spent their weekends in the Hawkeye state -- but they're actually critiquing their opponents by name. And they're making their closing arguments about what polls and their own words suggest Iowa voters want more than anything else: change.
As Clinton campaigned through the state this weekend, her pitch for change was simple: Bush out, Clinton in. No matter the question, she turned it into an attack on Bush followed by a recitation of one of the many policy proposals her campaign has rolled out. On occasion, the solution she discussed would probably never become law (she suggested banning colleges from increasing tuition after a student had enrolled and agreed to pay a certain amount for each of his four years) or blamed Bush for something he didn't cause (she suggested gas prices were high because of the administration's rhetoric about "World War III" and talk about military force to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons).
At her events, organizers handed out blue flyers with a cover that showed a picture of Clinton. Written in white letters a single word: "Ready."
Obama and Edwards are offering more complicated ideas on change. Both Obama and Edwards say that simply electing a Democrat won't fix anything, and that instead Washington needs more radical reform to shake free of the power of lobbyists and special interest groups. That they have seized upon the same theme is not an accident: Obama advisers have acknowledged this message is popular in focus groups, and one of Edwards's top advisers, Joe Trippi, advanced the same idea when he was guiding Howard Dean in 2004. But they describe different fixes for Washington.
To Obama, the bickering political parties need him to serve as a sort of a Grand Uniter. In Edwards's mind, Washington needs a liberal crusader. The candidate said, to applause, he would threaten to take away members of Congress' government-subsidized health coverage it did not pass universal health care.
"We're saying the system is corrupt," said Trippi, who was traveling with Edwards through Iowa. Obama "comes at it from a different approach, his is almost an intellectual approach."
Of late, Obama slams Clinton for "political calculation" and not answering questions, and while Edwards does that too, he veers into the impolite zone when he connects her to his critique of Washington.
"Senator Clinton was talking about China and she said 'our problem with China is they have all this American debt. It's hard to be tough on your banker,'" Edwards told a crowd in Charles City, Iowa, the first stop in a five-city tour Sunday. "Senator Clinton has raised more money from the health care industry than any Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. I agree with her, it's tough to take on your banker."
In Waverly, he said Clinton was the candidate who raised the most money from the defense industry as well. Like Obama at times, Edwards has taken to ending his speeches by using words like "honest" and "sincere" to describe what Americans should want in their president. But by using Clinton's name earlier in the speech, and perhaps helped by her waffling on questions in last week's debate, voters in Mason City said they understood his point wasn't just a criticism of Bush, but of Clinton.
For both Obama and Edwards, this critique may be a tough sell to win Iowa voters, many of whom view Bush as the problem, rather than the system in Washington. When hearing from both Edwards and Clinton, voters asked many questions about pocketbook issues, like how they could pay for their child's college tuition while also dealing with increased prices for health care and gas. Voters nodded when Edwards spoke about the need for a new system, as he said, "do we want Democrats to control Congress? Absolutely. Do we want a Democrat in the White House? Absolutely. But to get things done, the only way to things are going to happen is if we say the truth about a system that doesn't work."
But fixing a system that doesn't work wasn't the only big applause line in Iowa this weekend. When Clinton answered a health care question by detailing her plan for requiring health insurance companies to offer anyone who applies some kind of coverage, even if they have a pre-existing disease, crowds were equally enthusiastic.
"Part of our challenge over the next two months is to make that more and more clear," said Edwards's deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince of the candidate's themes and how Edwards can convince voters his ideas for overhauling the system are more important than Clinton's proposals.
Of course, Clinton may have provided a small opening. Carol Herman, a retired woman in Waverly, Iowa, where Edwards spoke, said she was deciding between Obama, Edwards and Clinton and was now leaning against Clinton because "she was vacillating back and forth" at the debate, which contrasted with the "straightforward" Edwards. Of course, Herman lives in Iowa, so she can base her decision on more than just a nationally televised debate: Clinton is due in Waverly today.
--Perry Bacon Jr.
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