Iowa: Obama Takes Aim at Edwards

Inside the Smokey Row coffee shop in Pleasantville, Iowa, amid a crowd of political junkies and stargazers, one 9-year-old boy drew Barack Obama into a conversation at the weekend. Eli Brown told the candidate that he had a problem with his mother. After exchanging a few words, Obama called out for Eli's mom. "Eli says he's supporting me, but you might be supporting Edwards," Obama said. "Eli asked me to tell you what I'm going to do as president."

After listing a few priorities (such as bringing the troops home from Iraq), Obama had a suggestion for Eli's mother. "You should take a support card in case you change your mind," he said with a wry smile. "Just in case."

In the final days of the Iowa campaign, Barack Obama seems more relaxed than he has all year, but he has at least one new concern. Where he used to focus on a head-to-head contest with Hillary Clinton, he is now taking a much tougher approach toward the man who is
trailing in third place in the polls.

After weeks of respectful exchanges and almost no direct criticism, the relationship between Obama and John Edwards has shifted from its old anti-Clinton axis. This is what Obama likes to call the silly season—and the Obama campaign is hardly immune from seasonal feelings of
silliness.

Late last week, Obama's aides were alarmed by the sight of an independent group buying a large amount of advertising time on Iowa TV. Fearful of an unpredictable advertising surge, Team Obama was happy to take an aggressive line against Edwards. In so doing, they
were also attempting to answer lingering questions about their candidate's readiness for a fight. After all, fighting has become Edwards' biggest pitch to voters in the closing phase of this caucus contest.

The dispute gave the Obama campaign a chance to indulge in some political chest-thumping. Something similar happened when Robert Novak suggested that Clinton associates were spreading scandalous rumors about Obama earlier this year. The Obama team responded with multiple demands for a Clinton disavowal—even though the vague item was anonymously sourced by a conservative columnist. These kinds of exchanges are meant to say more about the toughness of the campaign than the substance of the supposed smear.

The Edwards brawl focused on a group called Alliance for a New America, which is advised by Edwards' former campaign manager, Nick Baldick. Obama's aides had no idea what the ads might say about Obama. Besides, they could afford to match the ads at a cost of more than
$750,000. But they still called foul for two days, prompting several responses from the Edwards camp.

First Obama questioned Edwards on his stated disapproval of such groups. "We found out today that there's an outside group spending $750,000—just bought three-quarters of a million dollars worth of television time—and the individual who is running the group used to be John Edwards's campaign manager," Obama said at a campaign event in Oskaloosa. "So, you can't say yesterday, you don't believe in them, and today, you're having three-quarters of a million dollars being spent for you. You can't just talk the talk."

Edwards responded with one press release accusing Obama of launching an attack out of fear. "Senator Obama's attacks seem to increase as momentum for our campaign grows," he said. "As for outside groups, unfortunately, you can't control them. But let me make it clear—I think money has corrupted our politics and these groups should not be a part of the political process."

Had it stopped there, the exchange would have barely registered. Instead, the Obama campaign unearthed Edwards's demands for President Bush to end the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry in 2004. Within an hour, Edwards issued a second statement demanding an end to the new ads. "I am asking this group and others not to run the ads," he said.

That wasn't enough for Obama. On day two of the dispute, sitting at the black and chrome bar of the West End Diner in Des Moines, Obama underscored the real nature of this bout with the self-styled fighter.

"He said yesterday he was going to ask them to do it and my attitude is that if you can't get your former campaign manager and political director to do what you'd like, then it's going to be hard to get the insurance companies and drug companies to do what you want," Obama told reporters. "My hope is that he takes this seriously."

The scuffle was part of a two-day focus on what have traditionally been Edwards' themes in the last campaigning days before Christmas. First Obama promised to "protect workers against unfair trade deals," releasing a new TV ad that criticized companies for moving jobs to China. Then he promised to ban lead-tainted toys from China. It was a striking combination of two anti-corporate themes, along with the attack on Edwards for an outside group. To be sure, this isn't the first time Obama has criticized trade deals and campaigned on consumer issues. But the timing seemed coordinated all the same.

Was it a bump in Edwards' poll numbers that prompted the exchanges between the campaigns? Edwards' staff believes they are experiencing an increase in support in Iowa and beyond, describing the movement in the polls—as well as bigger crowds on the campaign trail—as either "an uptick" or "a surge".

Edwards has not led a poll in Iowa since August, but his numbers have recovered a little since their low two months ago (when Clinton was at her peak). Still, the vast majority of Iowa polls this month have placed Edwards at less than 25 per cent—a threshold that Clinton and Obama have almost always stayed above.

In another sense, Obama's campaign has good reason to be concerned about Edwards' standing in Iowa. In public, the Edwards campaign has emphasized its rural strategy—to appeal to voters in forgotten farming communities. In fact, Edwards's strong second place in 2004 was based in the Des Moines area. He beat John Kerry in the city and the counties surrounding it, as well as rural counties to the south. But rural counties to the west and east swung heavily to the patrician senator from Boston.

Obama will need to win some of those Des Moines votes from Edwards if he is to beat Clinton on January 3rd. Judging from the polls and his campaign events before Christmas, he has yet to seal the deal with at least a third of likely caucus goers. "It's true that there are a lot of people undecided," Obama told reporters on Sunday. "I think for a lot of them it's matter of seeing me for the first time."

Meeting Obama may be memorable, but there are some things about the candidate that can confuse even his fans. "Thank you, Osama," said 9-yeard-old Eli Brown as he walked out with his mother. "It's a tough name," replied the candidate. "And he's a supporter."