With a little more than a month until the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is out to show voters that he can take a punch -- and throw a few, too.
Over the course of a long day on the campaign trail in rural, western Iowa, Obama seemed to relish the chance to mix it up on policy and personalities with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., the national front-runner. The two -- along with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- are locked in a tight, rollicking and increasingly acrimonious race in first-in-the-nation Iowa.
Last week, Clinton -- apparently feeling the heat -- took one of her sharpest jabs yet at Obama, mocking his claim that his childhood years in Indonesia provide him with unique insight into foreign affairs. "Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," Clinton said.
Obama fired back in an interview with "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran: "You know, we must be doing pretty well in Iowa. She wasn't paying much attention to what I said before then." (CLICK HERE to read the transcript of the interview)
And then, Obama went out of his way to belittle Clinton's experience as first lady.
"I think the fact of the matter is that Sen. Clinton is claiming basically the entire eight years of the Clinton presidency as her own, except for the stuff that didn't work out, in which case she says she has nothing to do with it," Obama said, and added, referring to his relationship with his wife, Michelle, "There is no doubt that Bill Clinton had faith in her and consulted with her on issues, in the same way that I would consult with Michelle, if there were issues," Obama said. "On the other hand, I don't think Michelle would claim that she is the best qualified person to be a United States Senator by virtue of me talking to her on occasion about the work I've done."
With this line of attack, Obama is openly calling Clinton out on one of the basic arguments of her candidacy and her career -- that her experience at Bill Clinton's side in the White House and before, make her the most qualified person in the race.
Obama continues to paint himself as the most "authentic" candidate whose real life experiences distinguish him from his democratic rivals. He claims that his experience living abroad, traveling the world, witnessing poverty and even facing racism as a black man has given him a perspective that some of America's best presidents have also possessed.
"Our most successful presidents have been people who were successful not because of their wealth of Washington experience," Obama said, "but because of the life lessons and schools of hard knocks that they had gone through."
Obama often makes the argument that these "hard knocks," in addition to his outsider status in Washington, give him the unique ability to change U.S. politics. "I think this whole argument about 'He speaks well, he's got good ideas, but he needs more experience,'" Obama said to a crowd gathered in a School in Western Iowa. "What they really mean is I haven't been in Washington long enough. They want to boil all the hope out of me."
He is hammering on the theme that he is the candidate with fresh ideas--the real "change agent" to take on the status quo in Washington.
"If you think that we've got to do things fundamentally differently, restore a sense of trust in out government, and have greater transparency--then I might be your guy," Obama said.
Obama presents himself as the one candidate -- partly because of his international background, who can repair America's image abroad. "I think I can present a new foreign policy and a new way of doing business that the world will respond to," he said.
Critics disagree and believe Obama is naive for saying that he would meet with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions. Obama discounts his critics, blaming Bush and Cheney for having "shifted the [foreign policy] debate in a profoundly damaging way."
"We're still operating under an old model, we don't recognize the new threats of the 21st century" Obama said. "How the world perceives us will have a great deal of influence on how safe we are."
While Obama acknowledges that violence has decreased in Iraq, he believes the surge has failed to create the space for Iraqis to make political progress. He argues that it is in the interest of national security to start withdrawing US troops.
"If we cannot execute an intelligent, thoughtful exit strategy, and the Iraqi government cannot respond in an effective, positive way, over the course of the next two years to end our occupation in Iraq, then we may be looking at a decade-or two decade long stay in Iraq," he said. "And that, I believe, would be disastrous for our long-term national security."
While Obama is leading in Iowa, he is showing no signs of relaxing. According to the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 30 percent of Iowans support Obama, 26 percent support Clinton, and 22 percent support Edwards. Obama continues to press hard against Clinton, reach out across party lines, and convince Iowans of just how important their votes will be.
"Those of you who live in Iowa, you have this extraordinary privilege," Obama told a crowd gathered in a school in Western Iowa. "You are going to decide, more than probably any other American who the next president is going to be, who the next leader of the free world is going to be--So I hope all of you decide to take advantage of this opportunity."
Citing the compressed primary calendar and thus the increased influence of early states, Obama recognizes the importance of winning Iowa. "I think if you don't do well in Iowa, it's going to be hard to make up for it later," he said.
However, he believes that Clinton is under more pressure to carry Iowa because of her front-runner status and her portrayal in the media as inevitable. "The overwhelming favorite who has been touted as inevitable over the last six months better win Iowa," Obama said. "Don't you think?"
Obama is also counting on some Republicans to help him carry Iowa. Which is why he has been spending time campaigning in the rural, more conservative, Western Iowa.
"We got Democrats and Independents and yes we even have some Republicans," Obama said to a crowd in Dunlap, Iowa. "I know this because when I'm shaking hands afterwards they whisper to me. They say 'Barack, I'm a Republican, but I support you.' And I say 'thank you, why are you whispering?'"
Winning Republican votes is just one way Obama aims to set himself apart from Clinton. As the Caucuses near, his offensive against Clinton will likely only heat up more, in hopes of knocking the "inevitable" candidate down in Iowa.