LOS ANGELES -- Somewhat overlooked Wednesday amid the hubbub over John Edwards' exit from the Democratic race was this: Barack Obama is slowly but surely ratcheting up his rhetoric against Hillary Clinton, building what amounts to a hard-edged closing case against his rival as the pair head into a high-stakes debate here tonight.
It has been a gradual buildup for Obama. After his defeat in Nevada, he started hitting Clinton in his stump speech for what he said were her misstatements on his record and platform, such as her charge that he was for a "trillion dollar tax increase on hard-working families" because he has said he is open to raising the $97,500 cap on salary taxed for Social Security. At his victory speech in South Carolina Saturday night, he broadened this out to a sweeping condemnation of Clinton's tactics as old politics. "Right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face," he said.
He has been carrying that theme forward all week, casting the opposition's criticisms as nothing but the defensive lashes of an establishment under siege. In his grandfather's hometown of El Dorado, Kansas on Tuesday, he echoed the South Carolina speech in declaring that the nomination battle was "about the past versus the future." "It's about whether we settle for the divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense and innovation," he said.
But he took this a step further Wednesday in Denver, where he told a crowd of 9,000 in the University of Denver basketball arena (with thousands more listening in spillover areas elsewhere on campus) that Clinton -- without naming her name -- was not only the representative of old politics, but someone poorly positioned for the general election. It was the most explicit case against Clinton's electability he has made to date.
"We can be a Party that tries to beat the other side by practicing the same do-anything, say-anything, divisive politics that has stood in the way of progress; or we can be a Party that puts an end to it," he said. He continued: "We've reached Americans of all political stripes who are more interested in turning the page than turning up the heat on our opponents. That's how Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress. Not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us, but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change."
He made his attack on electability and effectiveness in office specific to trade, health care, and foreign policy. Voters, he said, "can't afford to wait another four years or another fifteen years to get health care because we've put forward a nominee who can't bring Democrats and Republicans together to get things done." On the war in Iraq: "It's time for new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain...is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; who agreed with him by voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like; and who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed."
He concluded: "It's not enough to say you'll be ready from Day One - you have to be right from Day One."
And he kept it up in Phoenix Wednesday night, telling a crowd of more than 10,000 inside Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum that his campaign was attracting "all the usual reactions from Washington," as he mixed together the criticisms from Clinton with the anonymous emails calling him a radical Muslim and accusing him of not saluting the flag for the Pledge of Allegiance.
It all added up, he said, to a "smear campaign just like we've seen in the past, the rubbing raw of racial divisions, making us suspicious of one another, all the strategies designed to make us afraid. You know, we don't need fear. We're tired of the politics of fear...We're tired of the smear campaigns. We're tired of the racial divisions. That's all in the past. We want to go forward."
It's strong stuff, and the Clinton campaign did its best to knock it down, calling the Denver speech -- which for all its tough lines was delivered in Obama's customary lofty tones -- an "angry screed" that was "certainly audacious, but not very hopeful."
It should be a good debate tonight.
CNN, 5-7pm PST.