Barack Strikes Back

Two months ago, Barack Obama traveled to Ashford University in Eastern Iowa to spell out exactly how he would bring troops home from Iraq. He was slipping in the national polls at the time and under increasing pressure from big donors to deliver a more forceful pitch for the Democratic nomination. So he added some oomph to his Iraq proposals, detailing how he would order one or two brigades home each month if he were president. But Obama continued to shy away from a real fight with his Democratic rivals. His criticism of them, to the extent that he had any, was maddeningly indirect. "Conventional thinking in Washington lined up for the war," Obama said of the run-up to the invasion. "Too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves." Whom did Obama have in mind? When asked, Obama's aides would only point to the name of the town where he was speaking: Clinton, Iowa.

Today, the oblique, exceedingly polite Obama—the candidate who dared not speak his rival's name—has vanished. The new Obama exchanges blows with Hillary Clinton—in his own voice, by name, in public. When Clinton said last week that the nation could not afford "on-the-job training for our next president" on economic policy, Obama tartly responded, "My understanding is she wasn't Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration." The next day, Clinton was harsher on foreign policy, contrasting her personal contact with world leaders to Obama's "living in a foreign country at the age of 10." Obama quickly returned the put-down: "I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq."

Even the campaign concedes Obama has evolved. "This is his first run for the presidency, and every day you are a little bit more understanding of the process," says communications director Robert Gibbs. "He's certainly become more comfortable." Obama has always been least comfortable in debates, which demand short, pointed (some would say glib) responses to complicated questions. Obama's staff complained in the first few months of the race that the senator disliked debate prep, and that he resisted their attempts to reduce his responses to 60-second debating points. Obama wanted to run a different style of campaign, true to his central message—that he would be honest about the complex issues facing voters, and that he could bring the country together to solve them. But part of that message was that he wouldn't sling mud.

That seemed a decent, worthy approach —and one that was sure to fail. Voters rank national security a top priority, and see a harsh world out there with many enemies. If Obama couldn't take on Hillary Clinton, how would he confront Kim Jong Il of North Korea or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Clinton, meanwhile, had her own message: that she was tough and experienced, and Obama wasn't. Clinton was defining him, and he wasn't responding. Obama could no longer afford to play nice. So at a debate in Philadelphia last month, he confronted his main rival head-on—accusing Clinton by name of "changing positions whenever it's politically convenient."

Obama continues to refuse to condense his positions into sound bites, and he can still seem flustered when asked for a straight answer. At the recent debate in Las Vegas, he tripped up when he was asked the most obvious question—the same one that had earlier upended Clinton—about whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses. Asked for a yes-or-no answer, he became defensive and tried to explain his unpopular support for the measure. He still seems uneasy pursuing politics as a game, played to win. "Barack never got into this race with the goal of beating Hillary Clinton," says David Axelrod, Obama's chief political adviser. "That wasn't his objective. But he did get into this race because he offered something different and more suited for the times."

In the past, candidates have overcome early charges of naivet? and intellectualism on the trail and gone on to victory. Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy's speechwriter and senior aide, notes that Lyndon Johnson regularly attacked JFK for his inexperience and lampooned his soft response to the U2 spy-plane crisis. Now Sorensen, who campaigns for Obama, sees parallels in the ways the two candidates responded to such criticism. JFK's early speeches were also full of hope and short on detail, says Sorensen, but he also got stronger and more direct as the race heated up. "[Obama] has learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work, just like Kennedy. His speeches have become more precise," says Sorensen. Axelrod likens the learning process to that of an astronaut. "You can bounce around in the simulator," he says, "but until you're sitting on top of the booster rockets, you can't feel it." With Iowa little more than a month away, the time for learning is over. The countdown has begun.