The Democratic presidential candidates have transformed the race into a battle almost entirely over character and electability as the three leading candidates scramble for position in a tight race in Iowa and beyond.
With broad agreement on the major issues, big policy questions have receded to the background. And daily sniping between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., -- who is leading in the latest Iowa polls -- is leaving an opening for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to make his case to caucusgoers with a minimum of interference from his rivals, political observers and strategists say.
Clinton, the national front-runner, completed the transformation of the race into a tussle over integrity and the ability to win by beginning direct engagement with Obama over a range of topics.
Attacks on Trust, Experience
In virtually all of her attacks -- on health care, on Iran, on Obama's political action committee, even on when Obama first harbored presidential ambitions -- Clinton is focusing on broad questions about trust and experience, rather than the details of the policy disagreements themselves.
"We've got to be willing to put up a candidate who's willing to stand up for it and fight for it," Clinton said last week in Iowa in attacking Obama's health care plan. In a similarly broad vein, Obama and Edwards have for months argued that Clinton is too polarizing a figure to lead the Democratic Party in an effective manner.
"Even if we win [with Clinton as the nominee], we will have just eked out a victory, and we can't govern," Obama said Monday in an interview with The Boston Globe.
Edwards Questions Clinton's Electability
Edwards said Tuesday that Democrats need to look beyond the race for the White House in choosing a presidential candidate who can help House and Senate candidates in Republican as well as Democratic states.
"What I know is that, having grown up in a small town in rural North Carolina, having won in a red state, I'm somebody who can go anywhere in America and not just help myself and help get a Democrat in the White House, but actually help people who are running in difficult places," Edwards said on MSNBC. "I know that some people have expressed those concerns about Sen. Clinton."
In sharpening their attacks, the candidates are responding to the fact that no candidate has pulled away in the race, said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to two-time presidential candidate Richard Gephardt.
"They're all Democrats, and at the end of the day they'll get together. So while there are differences, they're not all that far apart from each other," Elmendorf said.
"There is hyperventilating on all the campaigns' parts. This is essentially a three-way tie in Iowa. You've got 30 days left, so people are going to start drawing contrasts."
The few policy disagreements the candidates do have -- on issues including trade, health care and the future course of the Iraq War -- are being filtered through the prism of character, leadership abilities and honesty.
'Can't Dodge the Big Fights'
For instance, when Clinton attacked Obama Monday over his Iran views, she blasted him for missing a vote over whether to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. She stressed that fact instead of their disagreement over the measure, or their different views on how to approach diplomacy with Iran.
"A president can't dodge the big fights, can't find political cover, or have words speak louder than actions," Clinton said.
Rather than responding directly to the attacks, Obama is seeking to stay above the fray as he cultivates his image as a change agent. Instead of explaining his views on Iran, or defending the fact that he missed the vote, he dismissed the charges as part of "silly season."
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the Clinton camp, said all of the campaigns appear to realize the value of tying even slight differences on issues to the broader questions that shape the narrative of campaign press coverage.
"Much of the coverage of the campaign at this stage is about conflict," Lehane said. "You bring in the issues as a fig leaf, a cloak, a proxy. But ultimately it's always about character."
The Edwards campaign is particularly pleased with the shift in the race's focus. Now he's watching while the top leading contenders battle each other.
And Edwards has made his biography part of his campaign message from the start, arguing that he's uniquely positioned to bring radical change to the political system.
"We're happy to let them have their little spat," said Jonathan Prince, Edwards' deputy campaign manager. "When campaign comes to caucus time, the caucusgoers make their decisions on what really matters to them. It's about who these people are, and where they are going to take the country, and whether you can trust what they say."
Though the exchanges are highly personal, most have steered clear of overt name-calling, with the candidates cognizant of the dangers of negative campaigning.
But Elmendorf said the candidates are likely to draw more broad-brush contrasts in the final weeks before the caucuses -- with all of the Democrats arguing that they'd be best positioned to win in November 2008.
"People's attention is now focused. It's the natural rhythm of the campaign," he said. "If you want to win here you've got to say what makes you better."