From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan and NBC's Mark Murray
FORT MADISON, IA -- Obama pushed his electability argument a step further at his second stop here today, highlighting Clinton's unfavorable ratings -- while claiming that he could win enough Republican support to create a coalition for governing if he were to win the presidency.
"There's one Democrat who beats every Republican potential opponent, and that's me. I beat Giuliani, I beat McCain, I beat Thompson, I beat Huckabee -- I beat whoever else they are planning to throw at me," he said.
Obama added, "And the reason that I beat them all -- and Hillary doesn't and Edwards doesn't -- is because I get more support from independents and I even get some Republican support, despite the fact that I've got the most progressive track record on many issues of any of the candidates."
Obama went a step further, contrasting his favorability ratings with Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ones nationally and played on the fears of Democrats that the election in 2008 could be a repeat of the one in 2004.
Obama paused before he drew his contrast, conscious of how his words would come off. "We cant win an election with a candidate... Let me say it this way, because I want to be fair…" He went on to say, "We are less likely to win an election that starts off with half the country not wanting to vote for that candidate." And in what seemed to be a dig at Edwards, he said, "We are less likely also to win an election with somebody who had one set of positions four years ago and has almost entirely different positions four years later. We've been through that."
In the most recent national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, both Obama and Clinton bested their potential GOP rivals, yet Obama did so by larger margins than Clinton did. Clinton also had net-negative favorability rating in the survey.
Making a reference to the attacks leveled against Senator John Kerry in 2004 for being a flip-flopper, Obama added, "It's a problem, and so if you are concerned with electability having somebody who has been consistent, who has opposed the war from the start so the opponent cant say he was for the war just like I was." (Of course, Obama's rivals would likely point to his own changes on issues -- like the death penalty, gun control, and health care -- from the 1990s.)
At his next town hall in Keokuk, Obama appeared more comfortable making clearer distinctions, singling out Edwards and Clinton by name. "Part of the problem John would have in a general election is the issues he's taken on now are not the issues or the things that he said four years ago, which always causes problems in general elections," Obama said of Edwards, referring to his vote for the bankruptcy bill and the trade deal with China.
Regarding Clinton, he said, "And Senator Clinton doesn't beat all five of them because you start off with half of the country not wanting to vote for her."
Though the conventional wisdom in Iowa is that a candidate tries to stay above the fray in the week leading up the caucuses, Obama's willingness to target the other candidates in the race may reflect the incredibly tight race in Iowa and recent polls that show both Edwards and Clinton rising in recent weeks.
A spokesman for a rival campaign said of Obama's attacks, "The Los Angeles Times [poll] was the second in a week to show him sinking to third place in Iowa. Is it mere coincidence that he's going negative or turning up the heat and retooling his stump speech as his numbers began to sink?"
To stress its electability argument, Obama's campaign released a series of poll numbers that showed him leading Republicans in a two-way race in a general election.
But even Obama acknowledged that for a progressive Democrats to win wide margins among conservative Republicans may be a pipe dream. "I understand that there are going to be Republican operatives that don't want to know what I'm going to say. I'm not trying to persuade Rush Limbaugh that I'm going to be a good president; you know I know he's not voting for me. I'm not trying to you know persuade the chief lobbyist for Exxon mobile about why we need to free ourselves from the dependence on foreign oil. He's not going to be persuaded," Obama said.
In talking about the power of hope, Obama also stepped outside of himself to take a look at his own candidacy in which his race could be a handicap if he were to run as the first African-American president.
"I'm a black guy running for president named Barack Obama. I must be hopeful."