Waterloo, Ia. — Democratic presidential candidates generally agree that ending the war in Iraq is a top priority, yet Barack Obama is aggressively emphasizing the differences between him and other top candidates — especially Hillary Clinton — on the war.
Several Iowa political observers interviewed this week said that focus, illustrated by Obama's "Judgment and Experience" tour in Iowa this week, is critical to his campaign's success.
To gain a foothold into the party's top slot, the Illinois senator must find a way to slay criticism that he's inexperienced, said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. He must also successfully push aside the competition and stand apart from such rivals such as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Clinton, a New York senator.
"He can't just be negative. He can't say Hillary Clinton is a bad candidate, because that's not going to sell well and it's just going to make him look bad," Covington said. "He does have to start talking about - and you're seeing this happening — 'What are my advantages over her?' "
The biggest differences Obama was stressing this week include the 2002 vote in the U.S. Senate that authorized the war. Clinton and Edwards both voted to authorize the war. Obama, at that time, was not a U.S. senator; he voiced strong opposition to the decision. Although he typically does not mention Clinton or Edwards by name in his speeches, he has punched home a stinging statement at multiple events: "Let's be clear, without that vote, there would be no war."
Edwards' and Clinton's campaigns brush aside Obama's criticism.
Edwards' staff shifted the blame for continuing the war back onto current senators, including Obama.
"The real issue isn't what Senator Obama said as a state legislator. ... The question is what Congress should be doing today to actually end this war," said Dan Leistikow, an Edwards spokesman.
"This is more of the same from Senator Obama," said Mark Daley, a Clinton spokesman. "We believe voters are focused on the future."
Obama has worked during past Iowa campaign stops to tackle criticism that he is inexperienced, saying that, instead, his past judgments are evidence that he has what it takes to lead the country. He is emphasizing that point more strongly now.
"What we can do now ... is make sure we elect a president who has the judgment to make sure that we only send our young men and women into war when it's absolutely necessary for our security, not when it's ideologically driven, not when it's based on faulty intelligence, not when it's based on politics," Obama said in Waterloo on Thursday.
With about three months remaining until the Iowa caucuses, Obama's message must continue to strengthen, or he will have little chance of capturing the Democratic nomination, say top Iowa Democrats, media pundits and Iowa political professors. In opponent Hillary Clinton, he's up against two forces: the senator and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said Arnie Arnesen, a political radio and television host.
"He has to not just undermine her leadership abilities; he has to take on Bill. Remember, we're getting two for the price of one," said Arnesen, a former New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate.
Arnesen said Obama's portrayal of himself as a Washington outsider is a tougher sell to voters than it would have been in previous elections because experience with international affairs is deemed critically important to the future of the United States.
"Obama has to look to the struggling voters and remind them what leadership looks like," Arnesen said.
Most polls of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers have shown Obama in a tight race with Edwards and Clinton. A Newsweek poll released Saturday showed Obama as the preference of 28 percent, with Clinton at 24 percent and Edwards at 22 percent. A poll released this week by the American Research Group showed Obama with 24 percent, behind Clinton, who had 30 percent, but ahead of Edwards, who had 19 percent.
Obama, in an interview Thursday, called the differences he is highlighting "important, relevant information" and "the most important foreign policy issue since the Cold War."
"This campaign is not going to be won on trying to fabricate differences. I think there are real differences," Obama said, adding that he would be more likely than Clinton to talk with political enemies and build bridges.
Obama's ability to take down Clinton, the national Democratic presidential front-runner, may be more a matter of luck than rhetoric, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
"Hillary has to make some major mistake or some big scandal," Schmidt said. "Additional political campaign problems have to erupt" in order for Obama to take the lead, he predicted.
The big question, observers like Covington said, is whether Obama's message can successfully capture the attention of voters.
Cedar Falls resident Rosie Burt is one Democrat who hasn't really paid attention to what differentiates the candidates on the war issue.
"I haven't really looked too much at the differences," said Burt, who attended Obama's Waterloo campaign stop Thursday at the Boys and Girls Club of Black Hawk County. "I like both of them. Hillary and (Obama). Whichever one gets in there."
Independence resident Kristy Malinowski told Obama at a campaign stop Thursday in her town that he won her vote.
"Since he doesn't have that much experience, he won't be set in his ways and he's not contaminated," Malinowski said.