Putting On Their Game Faces

One of the most common complaints about the too-long, too-petty race for the White House is that it's all about personalities, not enough about issues. But what's a candidate to do if the issues aren't really an issue? That's just the problem Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, locked in verbal combat these last few weeks, are now confronting in the time remaining before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Obama and Clinton have spent weeks trading off between first and second place in Iowa polls and are now putting nearly all of their efforts into exploiting each other's vulnerabilities. Yet if the campaign for the Democratic nomination were really a contest of who had the best ideas for the country, voters would have a tough time choosing between the two front runners.

Clinton, for example, believes the United States should get its troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, but warns that leaving too quickly isn't practical. So does Obama. Obama wants to roll back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. So does Clinton. Both Clinton and Obama would force automakers to build more-fuel-efficient cars. They do tussle over details: he would consider increasing the income cap on Social Security taxes; she won't say what she'd do. She would use U.S. troops in Iraq to ward off Iran; he wouldn't. But these differences are more quibbles than clashes. Troubled by a tightening in the polls, the Clinton camp spent last week trying to find insulting things to say about Obama's health-care plan. Both campaigns say they want universal coverage, but can't agree on what that means—or how you get there.

Instead, Clinton and Obama have tried to differentiate themselves by making the race about something else: which one of them can win. For Democrats still frustrated by presidential losses in 2000 and 2004, that's no small thing. Many party activists fear that an unpopular war, worries about the economy and Bush fatigue alone won't be enough for Democrats to regain the White House, especially if, like John Kerry, their candidate turns out to be no match for the GOP's disciplined attack machine. In any election argument among Democrats, the elusive question of "electability" is sure to come up.

Clinton and Obama are ready with different answers. The senator from New York has made a great display of her intention to grind up any Republican who dares stand in her way. At last month's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, the Democratic contenders delivered rousing speeches to an arena packed with party loyalists. To cheers, Clinton promised her campaign would be "turning up the heat on the Republicans."

Clinton spokesman Jay Carson says she is the only Democrat who is tough enough to handle the nastiness of the coming campaign. "There's no one in the party who has taken more heat and won more fights with Republicans," he says. The Clinton camp continues to belittle Obama as inexperienced. But more recently, a new line of attack has emerged: that the Illinois senator, with his grand talk of reaching out to the other side, is too genteel to do what it takes to win. "Finding common ground is important," Carson says, "but knowing how to stand your ground is vitally important because they'll eat you alive." A Clinton strategist, who declined to be named bad-mouthing another Democrat, is less diplomatic. "What would [the Republicans] do to Obama? Nobody has thought about that yet," this operative says. "We have. He would be snack food."

It's an old campaign trick: take your opponent's biggest strength—in Obama's case, his politics of inclusion—and portray it as a weakness. Obama is doing the same to Clinton. His camp labels her "toughness" as so divisive that disenchanted Bush voters, and even many Democrats, will turn away from her. "When 50 percent of the people in the country say they won't vote for her," says Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe, "her ability to attract independents and moderate Republicans is very limited."

At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Obama brought many Clinton supporters to their feet by promising to end the warfare between Democrats and Republicans. "I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America," he said. "I want to be the president of the United States of America." Even when Obama vowed to take Republicans "head-on" if they begin "fear-mongering," he was quick to get beyond simple GOP-bashing and sound a broader theme appealing to voters fatigued with both parties. "I believe the American people are tired of fear and of distractions," he said.

Obama has had modest success in winning over Republicans. The campaign boasts that 268 registered Republicans in Iowa and 68 in New Hampshire had broken with the party and were supporting Obama. His camp puts these crossover supporters in touch with each other through informal "Republicans for Obama" e-mail groups, in hopes that they will persuade family and friends to join them.

But what about the Clinton camp's charge that Obama, for all his outreach, wouldn't hold up to GOP attacks? Obama's aides say he has already survived something more formidable: Clinton's attacks. "They think they are the toughest campaign on the block," says Plouffe. "And we seem to be handling them just fine."

At the same time, Clinton, concerned about coming across as too tough, has begun to promote her softer side—trying to show that when she isn't body-slamming Republicans, she, too, is trying to win them over. "The theory of Hillary is much more polarizing than the reality of Hillary," says Bill Galston, a former Bill Clinton policy adviser now with the Brookings Institution. "She's demonstrated that in the Senate." When she first ran for the Senate, her aides advised her to avoid campaigning in conservative upstate New York, which they considered a waste of time. Instead, she ran hard and cleaned up in solid GOP districts. NEWSWEEK has learned that Bill Clinton has urged his wife to play up that appeal with TV ads quoting conservatives who voted for Hillary. Clinton's aides have decided this isn't the time for such an ad.

Voters still haven't figured out whom they want to win. Polls paint a confusing picture. Among Democrats nationwide, Clinton holds a big lead over Obama and is still perceived as the candidate most likely to win in November. But that advantage evaporates when the two are matched up against leading Republicans. In surveys of voters from both parties, Clinton has a narrow, four-point lead over Rudy Giuliani in a recent NEWSWEEK POLL; Obama has a three-point lead. But against other Republicans, Obama comes out ahead, leading Mitt Romney by 16 and Fred Thompson by 13, compared with four points for Clinton in both scenarios.

One name rarely figures in the Obama and Clinton strategy: John Edwards. Both campaigns seem to believe his effort will fade. "I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Edwards," a Clinton adviser, who didn't want to be named discussing strategy, says. That could be a mistake. Edwards, who came in second in Iowa in 2004, is polling a close third in the state. By focusing on each other, Obama and Clinton risk missing a late Edwards surge that could remake the conventional wisdom of who looks like a winner. After all, it's tough to argue you're "electable" if your name isn't on the ballot in November.