Obama Walking a Fine Line Engaging Clinton

One week ago, over coffee and a Sunday paper, people read that Barack Obama intended to start confronting Hillary Clinton more forcefully, upping the intensity to delineate their differences.

"Now is the time," he told the New York Times. "It is absolutely true that we have to make these distinctions clearer. ... And I will not shy away from doing that."

People were primed for a fight based on the interview.

Let's get ready to rumble?

The Clinton campaign says based on the week that's transpired since that interview, it's clear he's already in full fight.

"Sen. Obama has officially abandoned the politics of hope in favor of the kinds of attacks one typically sees from politicians trying to revive their flagging campaigns," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer told ABC News.

He added that Obama is now, "basing his whole campaign on attacking Sen. Clinton."

But the Obama camp says don't hold your breath for that all-out rumble.

"Sen. Obama has and will continue to demonstrate important policy contrasts with Sen. Clinton," said Obama Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "He believes the American people deserve to know the choices between the candidates and has demonstrated where he disagrees with her on issues like Iran and Social Security, and will continue to."

But she added, "Anyone who thinks cheap punches is the only way to lay out the difference between candidates clearly underestimates the intelligence of voters."

So which has it been: Has Obama stepped into the center of the political ring, which sometimes can get personal, or is he more comfortable merely shadow boxing?

Based upon the last seven days, the answer may be in the middle. Some say he's walking a fine line when highlighting the differences with Clinton; and being on the attack in a much more direct way at times. But he's also holding back, being careful to uphold the "politics of hope" he's promised.

If anything, Obama appears to have been on the offensive against Clinton more in frequency than in force, more esotericly than exact. It's a little bit of both, but not all of either.

The week brought a slew of print interviews, media appearances, slightly re-jiggered stump speeches and one highly publicized debate showing the mixed bag, with Obama drawing up new differences and slightly increased rhetoric, but not keeping a somewhat timid approach to critique Clinton.

Obama brought some heat Tuesday in Philadelphia during the Democratic debate, accusing Clinton of shifting positions when politically convenient.

"[Clinton] has been for NAFTA previously, now she's against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position. She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a [vote] for diplomacy."

Obama also quickly challenged Clinton's answer on making public the documents from her time as first lady.

"We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history," Obama said. "And not releasing, I think, these records -- at the same time, Hillary, as you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experiences -- I think is a problem."

The fallout from Tuesday's debate also provided fresh fodder for more attacks on Clinton -- as Obama hit the TV circuit with a renewed tone and direct criticism of Clinton.

In an interview with the "Today Show" Obama criticized Clinton's response when challenged at the debate.

"Suddenly, she backs off and says: 'Don't pick on me,'" Obama said. "I think that that is not obviously how we would expect her to operate if she were president."

The Obama campaign took pains highlighting a speech Obama delivered rounding out the week Saturday, where new language was introduced in criticism of Clinton.

"She's run what Washington would call a 'textbook' campaign," Obama said. "But the problem is the textbook itself. It's a textbook that's all about winning elections, but says nothing about how to bring the country together to solve problems. As we saw in the debate last week, it encourages vague, calculated answers to suit the politics of the moment, instead of clear, consistent principles about how you would lead America."

Similarly, the Obama campaign stressed that Obama continued to draw distinctions with Clinton over Iran, Social Security and global diplomacy as evidence of a sharpening of rhetoric.

But examples of Obama's increased contrasts with Clinton also took other forms of timidity and veiled critiques, one more indicative of a non-combative Obama of months past.

Post debate, Obama strategist David Axelrod seemed to down-play the stepped-up approach.

"Yes, there are contrasts to be drawn and he drew them," Axelrod said. "But, yes, I know it's the fascination of the news media to see a steel cage match. That was not his goal."

Rounding out the week with an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" Obama chose to direct his jabs at a fake Hillary Clinton -- SNL cast member Amy Phoeler -- rather than engage the real Clinton. In a skit, Obama explained to "Clinton" why he appeared at a Halloween party wearing an Obama mask.

"Well you know, Hillary, I have nothing to hide," Obama said, "I enjoy being myself. I'm not going to change who I am just because it's Halloween."

Additionally, in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Obama described the next president as "Someone who doesn't have one position one day and another position the other day," a reference -- without naming names -- to Sen. Clinton.

Obama's strategy this week can best be described as the "stick and move" -- couching differences with Clinton in terms that allow retreat in order to remain within the self-imposed limits of the "politics of hope" message.

"In any election, it is critical to demonstrate the differences between you and other candidates," unaffiliated Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said. "What [Obama's] trying to do is a tough balancing act that few people have performed well, and we'll only knows over time if it works."

But will this be enough to beat the Clinton machine?

That may have to be settled in the ring, in a round come January.