‘The fun starts now’


Democratic rivals go for the jugular as tight three-way race looms in Iowa caucus

AS A curly-haired tot, Barack Obama once dreamt of leading America one day. He said as much in an essay titled I Want To Become President when he was in kindergarten in Indonesia, where he spent a part of his childhood.

Last week, the Democratic senator’s rival, Mrs Hillary Rodham Clinton, dug up the essay and used it against him. She said it proved he was lying about not having a lifelong lust for the Oval Office.

The gloves are off, with just weeks to go before the first presidential caucus in Iowa on Jan 3.

Senator Obama has declared the start of “the silly season”.

Or, as Mrs Clinton puts it: “The fun starts now.”

Iowa was once considered a shoo-in for the front runners, but has turned into a fierce battleground – or at least is being portrayed as one by an American media eager to keep up interest in the electoral race.

As the first state in the nation to hold primaries, Iowa has long been seen as setting the tone for a flurry of nominating clashes to come.

Mr Obama and former Republican Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have clawed back dramatically to mount serious challenges there, adding even greater uncertainty to next year’s election picture.

Defeat in Iowa could halt the momentum of New York Senator Clinton, who has thus far projected an image of inevitability as the the next Democrat to be nominated for president.

While she leads the polls in many other states and the nation, here she is locked in a tight three-way race with Mr Obama and former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards.

She appeared to have turned the corner two months ago in Iowa. But as the caucus looms, she is once again finding herself forced to confront not just concerns that have dogged her from the start of her campaign in the state, but also a young African- American upstart in Mr Obama.

While Senator Clinton is seen as capable and experienced in world affairs, voters continue to see her as a cold and divisive personality.

By contrast, Mr Obama oozes charisma. So he has moved to exploit Senator Clinton’s weaknesses – backed by a strong ground organisation. Even talk show host Oprah Winfrey has endorsed him.

In what many are now proclaiming to be a turning point in the Iowa race, Mr Obama delivered a compelling speech at the party’s traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinner where five other Democrat contenders also gathered. He had been performing under par in earlier events. But this time, his passionate call for national unity resonated.

It also had the intended effect of casting Senator Clinton as more of a polarising figure. Senator Obama’s move forced her to mount an aggressive, forensic examination of her chief opponent’s experience and character.

Using some of the harshest language of the campaign, she hammered him for offering “false hopes” instead of action. She predicted that voters would want “a doer, not a talker”.

She told voters that Senator Obama had ducked votes on guns and abortion as an Illinois state legislator even as he launched a new “Hillary attacks” website that captured all her attacks on him.

However, the shift in tactics appears to have cost her.

Two new Iowa polls show that Senator Obama has pulled into the lead in Iowa while Senator Clinton is losing support among women in a state where voters dislike negative campaigning.

And launching the attacks herself, rather than having her supporters in the party do it on her behalf, only made the move more risky. It reinforced the negative stereotype of Senator Clinton as a calculating figure.

Negative campaigning has not had a history of success in Iowa.

In 2004, Mr Dick Gephardt and Mr Howard Dean committed what some described as “murder-suicide” with their attacks on each other, opening the door for Senator John Kerry, who ultimately became the party’s candidate.

The person who could stand to gain the most this time from such attacks is the third Democrat contender, Mr Edwards.

His campaign, which has been openly critical of Senator Clinton in recent months, was remarkably silent in recent days.

Observers believe that Senator Clinton could probably survive a second-place showing in Iowa, given her strength in New Hampshire – the first state to hold a primary – and machinery built for the long haul.

But it could be potentially fatal if she comes in third – leaving her vulnerable to a single rival who could consolidate the anti-Clinton Democratic vote.

By contrast, the Republican contenders believe that they could recover from a loss in Iowa, where there is a two-way fight. For them, the larger battle and action is in New Hampshire.

The rise of Mr Huckabee – a pastor and former Arkansas governor – has thrown a spanner in the works for front runner Mitt Romney in Iowa.

Mr Romney’s strategy is aimed at winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. To that extent, the former governor of Massachusetts has sought to extinguish concerns about his Mormon faith that are dampening support among his party’s powerful evangelical voting bloc.

On Thursday, he addressed the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas – an echo of John F. Kennedy’s eloquent 1963 address in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in which he allayed fears about his Roman Catholicism.

Mr Romney is also active in New Hampshire, where all the leading Republican candidates, including Mr Rudy Giuliani and Mr John McCain, are staking claims while making only token runs in Iowa.

Expect fireworks among the Republicans to flare up in New Hampshire. The fun begins now.

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