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With All Eyes on Clinton, Time to Question Obama, Too


Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Barack Obama (D-Ill.) listens to testimony during the confirmation hearing for Deputy Secretary of State-designate John Negroponte on Jan. 30, 2007. (AP)

By Dan Balz
CLEVELAND -- The focus will be on Hillary Clinton tonight when she and Barack Obama meet here for their last debate before next week's primaries in Ohio and Texas. But should it be Obama who comes under closer questioning?

The political community and the press are consumed, understandably, by the horse race. Obama is at worst tied with Clinton in Texas and, while he still trails in Ohio, he has narrowed Clinton's once-hefty margin.

Two new national polls out Tuesday morning show Obama now leading Clinton among Democrats by double digits for the first time in this long nomination battle (though some other national polls show Obama and Clinton running much closer).

Pollsters know that if those national numbers are moving rapidly away from Clinton, Ohio is not far behind. In past general elections, the Buckeye State has come close to mirroring the final outcome, and it's likely that Democrats here reflect overall national trends as well.

All this spells big trouble for Clinton, whose advisers know the consequences of losing both states next week. If that were to happen, there would be a rising chorus within the Democratic establishment for her to end her candidacy and embrace Obama for the good of the party. Even a split decision may not be enough to prevent a groundswell for shutting down the Democratic contest. Certainly Bill Clinton believes that.

Pre-debate talk has been consumed with the question of which Clinton will show up here in Cleveland -- the magnanimous candidate from last week's Texas debate or the angry Clinton who demanded on Saturday that Obama meet her to answer questions about his conduct during the primaries and caucuses.

Much, obviously, rides on her performance, but rarely has a debate truly changed the state of the race. The clear exception was the Philadelphia debate in late October, when Clinton stumbled over the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and opened herself up to attacks from her rivals that ultimately helped Obama. What Clinton needs may be less a stellar performance on her own part and more one by Obama that raises, in dramatic fashion, questions about his fitness to be president or his positions on important issues.

In what could be a decisive week in the Democratic campaign, the rising candidate is receiving accolades for big crowds, the enthusiasm of his supporters, his apparent ability to inspire a new generation to become active in politics and his facility to have captured the desire for change after eight years of the Bush presidency and more than a decade of polarized politics.

Those are not insignificant accomplishments, but more than that will be required to actually win the presidency in November and then to govern this still-divided country. Which is why Obama ought to face rigorous questioning in these final days before Ohio and Texas.

Can he truly be the candidate of MoveOn.org and red-state politicians alike? Have those at different ends of the Democratic political spectrum attributed to him positions -- on issues ranging from Iraq to health care to the economy -- that are compatible with their own views, but not with the other's?

Is there any major issue upon which he parts company with the big labor unions, or has he adopted their agenda in totality? More broadly, where has he shown a willingness to take on some of his own party's constituencies, and if he's not willing to do so, how can he suggest that he can bring Republicans and independents into a governing coalition?

Does his anti-NAFTA rhetoric of the past few weeks reflect his true feelings about trade, or has this been a mostly tactical exercise to attack Clinton? Is he turning his back on what has been a general consensus on trade issues and turning toward a significantly more protectionist stance for the United States?

What are his real priorities were he to become president? Ending the war, certainly, but exactly how? Health care for all Americans within his first term, though with how much compromise with the Republicans to get it done? Beyond that, where will he focus his attention in his first year in office?

When would he take on the entitlement challenges of Social Security and Medicare? What does he really think about budget deficits and fiscal discipline? What would he give up to lower the deficit, or does he not think that that matters? What taxes would he raise, other than rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which would largely be eaten up paying for health care?

If President Bush failed to change the tone in Washington, in part because he sought to govern as a conservative, would a President Obama be prepared not to govern as the liberal he has been in the Illinois and U.S. senates in order to change politics in Washington, as he has promised?

Obama's success against Clinton to date speaks to his considerable gifts as a politician, but that success does not wash away hard questions that he, or anyone else who seeks to lead the country, should face at such a challenging time.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 26, 2008; 1:13 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton  
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