Read My Speeches, Senator Clinton. I'm No Pushover.

When Barack Obama chose not to land a big punch at the last TV debate for the Democratic candidates, many pundits concluded that the Illinois senator lacked the stomach for the fight. And several opined that the Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton was so boxed in by his optimistic rhetoric that he could not engage in a tough contest for the presidential nomination.

That was two weeks ago. Since then, Obama has engaged in a series of attacks on a certain unnamed Democrat who has spent much of her recent time in Washington.

Speaking in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, Obama positioned himself as a leader on alternative energy and climate change, after what his campaign called "years of broken promises." His policy proposals include a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, heavy investment in new energy sources and stricter regulations on energy efficiency.

But the policy ideas weren't nearly as striking as the political context he sketched out.

"There are some in this race who actually make the argument that the more time you spend immersed in the broken politics of Washington, the more likely you are to change it," Obama said in prepared remarks. "I always find this a little amusing. I know that change makes for good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to actually make it happen, they didn't lead. When they had the chance to stand up and require automakers to raise their fuel standards, they refused. When they had multiple chances to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable fuels that we can literally grow right here in America, they said no."

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Who could Obama be talking about? It turns out Senator Clinton voted against phased increases in fuel economy standards in 2005. She also spoke out against ethanol in her first term in the Senate, and voted against ethanol as a fuel additive several times in the same period. While those positions looked sensible for New Yorkers trying to keep gas prices down, they don't look so attractive now that she's campaigning for votes in rural Iowa.

Obama's energy-driven attack follows a week of speeches knocking Clinton for her initial vote to authorize war in Iraq. One of his biggest applause lines: "We need to ask those who voted for the war: how can you give the president a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?"

Obama is trying to carve out space that is more than just the archetypal Washington outsider. He suggests that he is a truth-teller who bucks "conventional thinking" and isn't in the pockets of the special interests. "If you want conventional Washington thinking, I'm not your man," he said in his Iraq speech. "If you want rigid ideology, I'm not your man. If you think that fundamental change can wait, I'm definitely not your man."

Maybe so. But many Democrats also want a candidate who can stand up for themselves in a TV debate in the general election. And Obama's inability to land his punches on Clinton during the Democratic debates has given many Democrats cause for concern.

For some of Obama's aides, such criticism is unwarranted. They prefer to think of the few moments when he has aimed his fire at Clinton: his attack on lobbyists' influence at the Yearly Kos debate, and his swipe over healthcare in the last debate in New Hampshire. Obama suggested that Clinton had taken a "lonely" position on healthcare in 1993. "Part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process," he said.

If you think that a lonely process is a soft attack, you're not, well, alone. Other aides to Obama suggest that the toned-down debate is entirely intentional. "This idea that we're going to talk about the politics that divides us by looking for cheap political points--then turn around and look for the cheap political points, rather than something substantive-- isn't who he is and what we're about," said one senior Obama adviser. "Probably the most destructive thing for this campaign is to engage in that, because what then is the point? We'd be no different from anything that everyone has done in the past."

What's so different about a speech that attacks another candidate (even if the speech names no names)? The answer may lie in Obama's literary self-image and his lofty aspirations. Behind the scenes, Obama's aides have long tried to make his TV comments more concise and more focused--in short, more like a soundbite. The pushback has come from the candidate himself, who prefers to see himself as a writer more than a media performer.

So the most important figure on Obama's campaign travels last week was Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy's speechwriter, who introduced the candidate at each of his Iraq war speeches in Iowa last week. "It's not very often that you get the chance to hear from history," Obama said at one rally in Coralville last week.

The Obama campaign is working hard in Iowa to evoke the memories of JFK among older caucus-goers, suggesting that the passion and hope of younger voters could spark some long dormant memories among older Iowans.

What they fail to recall is that JFK was the first president of the TV era; and one of his defining campaign moments was his triumph in his TV debate against Nixon. If Obama really wants to emulate Kennedy, he might want to remember that his role model embraced TV in much the same way that the senator has embraced the Internet.