It wasn't just the White House that struggled to explain away the new intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program. The latest intel report has posed a tricky challenge for the presidential candidates—especially those who voted for the recent Senate resolution against Iran's revolutionary guard.
In the Democratic field, that means Hillary Clinton. The New York senator and former first lady, her party's front runner, had just launched a new, stepped-up assault on chief rival Barack Obama, criticizing the scope of his health-care reform plan and the breadth of his presidential ambitions in an effort to slow a burst of momentum that has propelled the Illinois senator into a narrow lead in Iowa, according to the latest poll. The timing of the new National Intelligence Estimate interfered with Clinton's game plan and forced her—for an afternoon, at least—back on the defensive.
At the Tuesday-afternoon debate, sponsored by National Public Radio and held at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, all of the candidates took shots at President Bush, whose administration had been loudly proclaiming Iran's nuclear intentions until the new report rolled in. But after dispensing with the attacks on the White House, the spotlight shifted to Clinton.
Clinton started by suggesting that the resolution, which urged the Bush administration to brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, had been successful. "Since that resolution passed," she explained, "our commanders on the ground in Iraq have announced that we've seen some progress from the Iranians backing off, no longer sending in weapons and materiel, and beginning to withdraw their technical advisers."
That is a risky position at a time when the vast majority of Democrats seem to view virtually any policy connected to the Bush administration as anathema. "That is just what Bush said," says Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, about Clinton's response. "And she says we're using Republican talking points."
When pressed by NPR's Steve Inskeep, Clinton sought to demonstrate that she was hardly alone in considering Iran a threat—and suggested that her leading rivals had been hypocrites on the issue. "You know, earlier this year, Senator [John] Edwards told an audience in Israel that the nuclear threat from Iran was the greatest threat to our generation," she said. "Back in 2004, Senator Obama told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that he would even consider surgical strikes by missiles to take out Iran's nuclear capacity. So there was a very broadly based belief that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon."
Not surprisingly, Edwards and Obama were happy to continue conversation on Iran. "Senator Clinton and I just have an honest disagreement about this, but a very strong disagreement," Edwards said. "I think it's very clear that Bush and Cheney have been rattling the saber about Iran for a very long time, and I said very clearly when this vote took place on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that it was important for us to stand up to them."
Obama followed suit. "What I've been consistent about was that this saber-rattling was a repetition of Iraq, a war I opposed, and that we needed to oppose George Bush again," he said. "We can't keep on giving him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the ways in which they manipulate intelligence."
Will the intraparty skirmishing help clarify the choice for Iowa voters—or turn them off?
The conventional wisdom is that they dislike negative politics and punish candidates who are overly aggressive—as they did Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt four years ago.
But Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former governor and the co-chair of Hillary Clinton's campaign, believes the give-and-take is not only above board but favors Clinton. "Iowans want to know what the differences are between the candidates," he says. "They want to know the contrasts."
And yes, says Vilsack, one big contrast is on Iran. "Here's the difference: she was there. She actually cast a vote," he said, referring to the fact that Obama missed the Senate roll call while out campaigning. "There's an issue with a guy who was a state legislator who votes 'present.' You vote 'present' when you have a conflict. This is a guy who does a pretty good job of not answering questions. A guy who skips a significant vote to campaign. It's an issue. He can be critical of her voting, but at least she was there and is willing to stand up and explain what she did. It's very easy to criticize somebody when you weren't there." (Obama has since called his missed vote a mistake.)
The Obama campaign seems to be taking the attacks in stride. "It would be hard to respond in kind," says Gibbs, "because there are five attacks every day. They are emptying the gun every day. As Senator Obama has said, we have entered the silly season. And the silly season began with a slide in the polls. We think there's a premium on continuing to talk about what people really care about."
On Wednesday, Obama will try to stay above the fray—or at least create the appearance of doing so—by delivering a speech on national service at the campus of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Clinton will deliver an economic speech in New York. It may prove one of the last comparatively quiet interludes before Iowans head for their caucuses on Jan. 3.