Oct. 1, 2007 — -- As Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., seeks to sharpen his differences with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., his worst enemy could be . . . Barack Obama.
Obama has exploded onto the national scene with his promise of a new type of politics.
As embodied in the title of his book "Audacity of Hope" his candidacy has cultivated an "Obama brand" that's built on the broad promise of an end to politics as usual -- which means eschewing the withering attacks that often punctuate campaigns.
The strategy is showing signs of working, as evidenced by his campaign's almost $20 million fundraising haul over the past quarter, and the more than 20,000 people he drew to an appearance last week in New York City -- in Clinton's political backyard.
But with barely 90 days left before the first presidential votes are cast, the Obama camp is facing a remarkably static race that has Clinton ensconced as the firm front-runner.
If Obama takes Clinton head on -- the time-tested way to bring her poll numbers down -- he risks sacrificing the qualities that have made him unique in the race. It's a danger that Obama advisers say they're well aware of, as they seek to find ways for him to distinguish himself from Clinton without going on the attack.
"He has a strong aversion to going out there and engaging in sort of gratuitous attacks," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. "He's going to do [draw distinctions] in his own way. One of the things people appreciate about him is he's not a cheap-shot artist. That's part of the change we need in our politics."
"This is clearly an election about change, and the real question is, what is the nature of that change?" said Alan Solomont, a top Obama fundraiser. "What Sen. Obama is talking about is a fundamental change in how we conduct our politics. Americans are sick and tired of politics being about attacks."
Obama is seeking to highlight his differences with Clinton and other top Democrats this week with a speech Tuesday in Chicago to be followed by a four-day tour of Iowa.
His Chicago address coincides with the fifth anniversary of an anti-war speech he gave shortly before Congress voted to authorize force to oust Saddam Hussein.
Obama gave his initial speech while still a member of the Illinois state Senate, long before he had any realistic prospects of running for the presidency.
The Obama camp views his early anti-war position as key to his differences with his opponents, since all of the other major Democratic candidates -- including Clinton, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn. -- voted for the war in Iraq.
But Obama has struggled to define how his plan for Iraq looking forward would be different than Clinton's.
And, in looking back to 2002, Obama must be careful in how he calibrates his distinctions, since Clinton and her aides are ready to remind Obama of his past statements regarding positive campaigning if and when he decides to dial up attacks.
In July, for instance, a dispute over foreign policy let Obama to exclaim that Clinton's vote for the war was an example of "irresponsibility and naivete," and he suggested that Clinton would continue the "Bush-Cheney" foreign policy.
Obama said he was simply laying out differences with the Democratic front-runner. But Clinton fired back with a well-aimed zinger.
"You know, you have to ask, whatever happened to the politics of hope?" Clinton said.
Obama is offering a nuanced critique of Clinton's foreign-policy judgment, based primarily on her support for the Iraq War. Aides and advisers say Obama will advance that argument in reminding voters that he -- unlike Clinton -- opposed the war since before it began.
"Experience is a big issue, and so is judgment," said Alan Solomont, a top Obama fundraiser. "How could a sitting U.S. senator who had access to the intelligence data have voted in favor of the Iraq War, with all that experience in the White House and the Senate? What kind of judgment does that show?"
Axelrod said the campaign views the candidates' positions on the war as key to understanding how they would serve as president.
"People are focused on the future, and I think they should be. But how these candidates analyzed the war I think is important, because it gives you a sense of the judgment they'd bring to the job," Axelrod said. "It's important because there are episodes in one's political life that characterize who they are … There's no obfuscation to be had about the original vote, where he was and where others were."
Obama has also offered tentative criticism of Clinton's record on health care, arguing at a Democratic debate last week that her plan failed in 1993-94 in part because of the closed process she pursued while leading a health care task force as first lady.
"Part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process," Obama said.
But such engagement by Obama has been the exception, not the rule. The Obama campaign to date is reminiscent of two failed 2000 campaigns, said Julian Zelizer, a politics professor at Princeton University.
Both Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain offered new types of politics, largely free of attacks -- and both fell short in the primaries.
"When you have a politics of hope, or a new type of politics, it almost inevitably disappoints," Zelizer said. "He's constrained by what he can say as a candidate. This kind of campaign is exciting when it starts, but when reality sets in, it really can't be sustained."
Clinton has maintained her front-running status since the beginning of the year. Recent national polls show her more than 20 points ahead of Obama, her closest competitor, and a New Hampshire poll released last week showed her beating Obama 43-20 in the state with the nation's first primaries.
A tighter race is emerging in Iowa, where Clinton, Obama and Edwards appear to be locked in a three-way tie for the top spot. A Newsweek poll released over the weekend gave Obama a slight edge among likely Democratic caucusgoers, and Obama backers cite that as evidence that his message is resonating in the state where he has put most of his emphasis to date.
While voters in the early primary states are notorious for not settling on candidates until the last minute, Obama and the other Democrats know that time is running out to combat perceptions of Clinton as invincible.
"Hillary is clearly the front-runner, but still half of early state voters are undecided," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic consultant who was a top aide to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during his 2004 run.
"Now is the time for people to make a move, otherwise Hillary will continue to lock it up. Voters in Iowa and other early states are late deciders, and they vote based on who they see as president and who they think can win. Right now, Hillary is winning both those categories," Cutter said.
But Cutter added that Obama still has a significant opening to paint a contrast with Clinton, so long as he does that without over-the-top attacks.
"As long as it's done through reasoned argument and a steady hand, voters won't see that as an attack," she said.