From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
Spencer, IA -- Turning up the heat may be a slogan that Clinton coined on the campaign trail, but it was Obama who ratcheted up the temperature in the Democratic race today -- and it was aimed at Edwards.
At a town hall here, Obama directly questioned Edwards' record in the Senate, contrasting his record with Edwards' in regards to taking on the special interests. "The reason now that I raise this issue of the special interests is because everybody now in the campaign talks about how I am going to fight for you. Like Sen. Edwards, who is a good guy -- he's been talking a lot about, 'I am going to fight the lobbyists and the special interests in Washington.' Well the question you have to ask is: Were you fighting for'em when you were in the Senate. What did you do? Because I did something, immediately upon arriving in the Senate, despite the fact that it wasn't a popular position to take."
Obama added, "And that will give you some sense of whether or not folks are real are fighting for when they get into the presidency."
"I guess the Obama campaign is starting to realize what others have already: There is growing excitement on the ground for John Edwards as we enter the homestretch," said Edwards communications director Chris Kofinis in a statement. "But the truth is that John Edwards is the only candidate in this race who has never taken a dime of PAC or lobbyist money and he's also the only one urging the Democratic Party to reject lobbyist money. Unlike others, John Edwards has beaten corporate special interests his entire life, and won't be obliged to compromise or negotiate with them as President."
The reason for Obama's attack, according to Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki, is to help voters distinguish between the two candidates. Psaki said Obama was trying to distinguish his record, which she says has been focused on taking money out of politics and ethics reform since he was in the Illinois state Senate. "When Senator Edwards got into the Senate, he didn't do anything to change the ethics system in Washington," she noted.
Edwards and Obama have been trading barbs all weekend as the two criss-crossed the north central part of the state on their respective bus tours. But the distinctions drawn were focused on their potential futures in the White House and how they would take on the special interests to pass health-care reform, rather than attacking anything they had done on the past.
Edwards had said Friday that Obama was wrong to think that universal health-care could be passed without fighting the special interests. Obama countered on Saturday, saying that "just beating them" was not a way to get anything done.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, put the difference on their approaches more bluntly. "But if you put forward a plan that that overlooks insurance companies, it's really hard to understand how you are going to execute it without talking to them. And that's really what Sen. Edwards is saying. We're going to have private insurance companies in my plan but we're not going to talk to them because they are evil and they're bad."
The focus on drawing a contrast on lobbying reflects the voters that are turning up at town hall. Over the past five days, voters have asked more than a dozen times about what Obama would do about special interest influence in Washington.
Many voters at town halls are also saying that they are choosing between Edwards and Obama, and the choice they are making is often more visceral than scientific. As one woman in Algona said Sunday, "I was choosing between [Obama] and Edwards. I've seen Obama and he'll probably be the last one to come through here so I'm going with him."
The two candidates both spoke at Mason City on Saturday night, and experienced a reversal in roles, with Edwards packing a huge hall that was so crowded that the press left their risers and went into the balcony to shoot the event. Obama also drew a sizeable number of people, around 450, but in a comparison of press reports by NBC reporters, it lacked the frenzied enthusiasm that greeted Edwards.
As the two traverse the same countryside over the next few days, Obama will undoubtedly try to cull more support from a region that Edwards has stumped in for nearly six years. The question is whether voters are open to the distinctions and won't be turned off by the negative campaigning.
For now, the Obama camp doesn't seem concerned about any potential backlash. "There's a big difference between negative campaigning and drawing contrasts on how the candidates would govern when they went to Washington," Psaki said.