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Can Obama stay above the fray?

Posted: Monday, January 07, 2008

For much of his political career, the elders have told Barack Obama, "Not yet."

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It is a testament to his talent, and perhaps to his ego, that he usually responds: "Watch me."

When Obama began talking openly about running for president shortly after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, a lot of the swells dismissed him.

Not his time, they said. He should wait and run for governor. Or, he must be running for vice president.

Obama had heard all those things before, like when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate after only a brief career as a state legislator in Springfield.

His tight clutch of top aides mapped out a way he could win the Democratic presidential nomination. They knew that his first and most formidable challenge would be raising money. With supporters of Hillary Clinton's warning against contributing to her opponents, without any national base to draw from, and without any real history of shaking the money tree, Obama shocked the political world by raising more than $20 million in the first quarter of 2007.

Money isn't always a guarantee of success. If it were, Mitt Romney would have been the smiling Republican winner in Iowa instead of Mike Huckabee.

But in Obama's case - especially given the power of the Clinton machine lined up against him - the money spoke loudly. Then came the message.

Clinton kept claiming she had the experience. But she seemed to frame it more in the context of her experience in fighting Republicans rather than in achieving any grand policy initiative. Perhaps that's because she, like Obama, doesn't have such an achievement to trumpet.

Obama quickly and wisely laid claim to the mantle of change - that vague but powerful concept that stirs voters yearning for something different.

He had been able to gauge voter sentiment around the country while campaigning for fellow Democrats in the 2006 elections. He had seen how independents had decided to participate in the elections, and how Democrats had pleaded for a change. He also noticed that personality could be as important as any particular policy, though on one policy he never hesitated to repeat his position: a consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

Clinton tried to "Me too" on change, but it rang false for someone who also argued that her long experience made her the better candidate.

Now Obama is facing something he has avoided in most of his brief political career - a world class attack machine. In his losing race to Bobby Rush for Congress, Obama wasn't really deemed worth attacking. In his U.S. Senate campaign, Alan Keyes was such a feckless opponent that Obama could easily take the high road.

The Clinton campaign is weary of the Obama hero worship. It sent that message early Friday morning, promising to "draw distinctions" between the two candidates.

When the Clintons talk like that, someone in the back room is sharpening the long knives. And few campaigns are better versed in the dark arts, having won and lost on both sides of that divide.

Clinton does indeed know what it is like to be the object of scorn and contempt, and yet still come out on top. She knows, too, that she has waited longer and made more sacrifices than Obama to get to this place, to make her own form of history.

A loss for Clinton Tuesday in New Hampshire could cripple her campaign. But she and her husband have a sense of connection with the Granite State, much of it born of adversity. Bill Clinton bounced back there and saved his campaign. Hillary Clinton would like to do the same. But she has to get through Obama.

There is so little time between Iowa and New Hampshire that the "distinctions" the Clinton camp aims to draw will have to come fast and carry a lethal quality to have any serious impact.

So we start finding out this weekend how Obama handles the fray. It will be hard to stay far above it. But that's largely what got him to this place, with a real shot at becoming the nominee.

• Michael Tackett is the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau chief.



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