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Obama, the comeback kid, learns to talk tough

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama once electrified the United States by preaching a ”politics of hope” that would eschew negative adverts and attract voters put off by the divisive rhetoric of the campaign trail.

Unfortunately Obama then found himself outsmarted and outfought by his chief rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, and languished in the polls. Now Obama has, in effect, relaunched his campaign, coming out fighting against Clinton and slamming her record on everything from Iraq and Iran to education and trade.

It is working. Obama’s support in the key state of Iowa — which votes first in the Democratic presidential nomination race — has moved up strongly. Last week a poll for the Washington Post put Obama four points ahead of Clinton. The news rocked the political pundits who for months had assumed that Clinton’s lead there was virtually unassailable.

The US is waking up to the fact that Obama’s shift in tactics, and some critical missteps by the Clinton campaign, have left the Democratic field open again. ”It is back to being Obama or Hillary. It has tightened up in the last few weeks,” said Professor Bruce Gronbeck, a political specialist at the University of Iowa.

The signs of Obama’s new aggression were everywhere last week. He did not hesitate to attack Clinton and defended himself against criticism. In Austin, Texas, he slammed her for being too calculating and cynical to be president, echoing a feeling among many Democrats that the former first lady has shifted her principles to secure the nomination.

”Triangulating and poll-testing positions … just won’t do,” he said, attacking Democrats ”who think and act and vote like George Bush Republicans”.

His aggressive new stance continued in Iowa and New Hampshire as he descended on those states for a bout of intensive campaigning to shore up his new poll lead. When Clinton criticised Obama for his perceived lack of foreign policy experience, he responded by pointing out Clinton’s support for the Iraq invasion.

”I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq, because that is the sort of conventional thinking that we’re going to have to break,” he said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, which votes a few days after Iowa.

The outbreak of war in the Democratic race was kicked off by a bizarre newspaper column last weekend by conservative journalist Robert Novak. He alleged that Clinton’s camp had gathered scandalous information on Obama but had decided not to use it. Obama responded furiously by comparing Clinton’s tactics to the controversial ”Swift Boat” dirty tricks campaign that helped derail John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid by questioning his Vietnam record.

”She, of all people, having complained so often about the politics of personal destruction, should move quickly to either stand by or renounce these tactics,” Obama said in a rare official statement that he personally signed.

Clinton’s camp quickly denied the allegations and accused Obama of naively falling for a Republican trick. He then unexpectedly spoke openly about his use of drugs as a teenager to a group of New Hampshire school pupils, admitting he had made some ”bad decisions”. Obama’s hair-trigger response showed that his campaign is now trying to win the race by using naked aggression against rivals as much as simple persuasion of voters.

It has also revealed a deep unease within a previously confident Clinton camp. In recent weeks Clinton has boosted her staffing levels and opened new offices in Iowa, where previously she had looked a runaway winner. The Clinton campaign has also launched a new series of adverts explicitly addressing her rival Democrats’ attacks. They have taken on the allegations that she is untrustworthy or unprincipled and portrayed her as the one candidate that the Republican party fears most.

One advert features a man whose child received medical care after Clinton personally intervened. The man says in the advert: ”Her opponents are saying that Hillary can’t be trusted. I trusted this woman to save my son’s life and she did.”

Such tough tactics are now the norm in the race as voting looms six weeks away. However, they are potentially dangerous for Clinton, Obama and John Edwards, who has also adopted an aggressive approach in Iowa.

Iowa’s voters traditionally regard overly negative tactics as distasteful. In 2004, John Kerry’s remarkable last-minute win against the then Democrat front-runner, Howard Dean, was attributed in part to his refusal to be as negative as Dean. That means, some experts warn, that Obama’s tactics may win him some short-term relief in the polls but could backfire when it comes down to casting ballots.

”Iowa is a civil state. Negative campaigning has never played that well here. But we are at a stage of the race where it is time to take some risks. Those risks are only going to get bigger as the election date gets nearer,” said Gronberg.

However, Obama unveiled a tactic last week that could prove just as effective against his rivals as any attack advert. Oprah Winfrey, the queen of US daytime television who is beloved by Americans of every political stripe, has agreed to go on the stump to support him. Her first campaign stop is scheduled to be Iowa. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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