Clinton and Obama: A Study in Contrasts

For two left-of-center Democratic senators with roots in Illinois and similar policy goals, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York are offering Democratic voters markedly different campaigns.

There are those immediately obvious differences. Obama is new and relatively unknown; Clinton has been in national life since 1991 and is battle-scarred. Obama is running something of an insurgent's campaign, while Clinton has the dominant Democratic political machine working for her. Obama would be the first black president, Clinton the first woman. Obama is a tabula rasa, Clinton one of the more loved and hated figures in politics today.

But perhaps the most marked contrast can be seen in how the two are presenting themselves to voters. Obama is running almost a general election campaign, seeming more centrist than his views and record would suggest, incessantly talking about healing and uniting the nation. Clinton is clearly running to the left, harshing on a war she voted for to appeal to antiwar liberals, offering herself as a strong Democrat who knows how to deal with Republican attacks.

Put another way, Obama seems trying to win an electoral victory of all 50 states, while Clinton would be happy holding onto the states Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., won in 2004 while picking up just one extra to get her into the White House.

Obama's message this weekend, as he kicked off his campaign in Springfield, Ill., has been an immodest, audaciously Lincoln-esque appeal to unite these United States.

"That is our unyielding faith," he said to freezing crowds outside the Old Historic State Capital, "that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it."

He then flew to the key early-caucus state Iowa to introduce himself to voters.

"One of my strengths, I think, as a leader is that there are a lot of different pieces of America in me," Obama told a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, discussing his multi-racial roots.. "When I was a teenager, that caused me some problems because you feel like you're being torn in all different directions -- white, black. I was living in Hawaii so there was a strong Asian influence there. Sometimes you didn't know where you would fit in."

"But as I got older," Obama continued, "I realized that it was an enormous benefit. because I learned that people are people. … When you get down to it, most people have similar hopes and dreams for thieir kids. They have common values that we share as Americans."

Obama does not really deliver tough partisan rhetoric to Democratic crowds. He says his goal is to unite the country.

Toward the end of his town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, Obama distanced himself from what has become Clinton's hallmark phrase -- that she is "in it, and in it to win it."

"I'm in it," he said, to which members of the audience shouted out that he was "in it to win it."

But Obama sternly corrected them, saying he was indeed trying to win the presidency, but that his goal is larger than that -- "to transform the nation," he said.

Miles away, at Clinton's first sojourn into first-primary state New Hampshire, the red meat was being served up almost as if Clinton were a butcher.

Asked about the Bush administration's determination to invade Iraq, Clinton implied there was something pathological about the president's policy.

"I'm not a psychiatrist," Clinton said. "I don't know all of the reasons behind their concern, some might even say their obsession, other than you've gotta remember that Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld and President Bush's father had been been tangling with Saddam Hussein in Iraq before."

But Clinton faced some tough questions, given her shifting position on the war and the contrast her previous years of studied centrism pose to her current rhetoric.

"I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake," said Democratic voter Roger Tillton. "Until we hear you say that, we are not going to hear all of those other great things you are saying."

"I have taken responsibility for my vote," Clinton responded. "The mistakes were made by this president who misled the Congress."

The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

Both appeals can be risky.

Clinton's approach is the more traditional one taken by candidates trying to appeal to partisan voters who will decide who will represent their party in the presidential contest. But it also risks alienating moderate and independent voters who already, polling suggests, are wary of her and see her as polarizing.

Obama, on the other hand, is attempting a message that has been tried before. Former Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., in 2000, Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., in 1992, and Gary Hart, D-Colo., in 1984 and 1988, all attempted third-way, above-the-fray campaigns. Not one of them won their party's presidential nomination.

Eloise Harper, Greg McCown and Katie Hinman contributed to this report.