Barack Obama’s supporters have at least one firm prediction about what’s going to happen in the remaining days before the Iowa caucuses: more attacks from Hillary Clinton.
“I think they’re scrambling,” Gordon Fischer, an Obama supporter and former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party said about the Clinton campaign’s sharpening attacks. “This is not how it was supposed to be for Hillary Clinton in the final weeks of the Iowa caucuses.”
The tenor of the debate between the two candidates has turned ugly in the last days as Mr. Obama has staked out a slight lead over Mrs. Clinton in some Iowa polls, and Obama surrogates are adopting the unmistakable posture of the soon-to-be-aggrieved.
“I think what the Obama campaign anticipates is that whenever you have a campaign that is reaching a state of desperation, there is no telling what kind of card can be played,” said Arthur Davis, a representative from Alabama and an Obama supporter.
Mr. Davis pointed to a remark made by Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, on the Dec. 2 edition of the CBS program Face the Nation: “There’s a lot that voters don’t know about Barack Obama.”
“That is exactly the sort of innuendo-based campaign that the Republicans have run against the Clintons and that they probably plan to run against Senator Obama,” Mr. Davis said. “I think it’s a character attack and a smear by innuendo.”
By contrast, Mr. Obama’s supporters cast him as basically a blameless bystander in the current fight. “Obama is frankly turning the other cheek,” said Mr. Fischer. Bill Perkins, a New York State senator who introduced Obama at a Harlem event last month (during which Chris Rock made fun of African-Americans who might vote for “the white lady”), likened Mr. Obama’s defense to “jujitsu, you use the other people’s force against them.”
“Until now,” Mr. Perkins added. “The campaign has anticipated the worst, and been able to turn everything into an opportunity.”
Of course, that’s not quite the whole story. The Clinton campaign, and Mrs. Clinton herself, have indeed intensified their direct criticism of Mr. Obama in recent days, graduating from oblique references to his lack of foreign policy experience to suggestions that he lacks character, culminating in a statement from a spokesman citing a kindergarten essay as evidence of his long-standing and unhealthy presidential ambition. Most recently, the Clinton campaign assailed Mr. Obama because of his answers on a questionnaire in 1996, when he was a state Senator, that are more clear-cut than his current positions on abortion and the death penalty.
(And apparently the Clinton camp is looking for fresh material: The New York Times published a wayward email from deputy campaign manager Bob Nash requesting information on Mr. Obama’s time as a community organizer in Chicago.)
It should be said, however, that the attacks were not simply a response to the tightening polls, but to Mr. Obama’s incessant—and apparently effective—goading of Mrs. Clinton about her role in what he portrays as the tiresome and decreasingly relevant political ways of the 1990’s, and, yes, her long-standing and unhealthy presidential ambition.
The escalation seems to have given rise to an unsettling feeling among Mr. Obama’s supporters that there’s more to come.
One prominent Obama donor said some in the campaign were worried about unflattering revelations related to the widely reported relationship between a disgraced real estate associate and Mr. Obama. (“If there is a nuclear bomb, that’s got to be it,” said the donor.)
Another donor to Mr. Obama, also speaking on background, said that the campaign feels Mrs. Clinton’s more personal attacks reflect one of two possibilities.
“One is they took a calculated risk, which is that going negative, which obviously can drive up her negatives, is a risk we have to take because otherwise he has this thing won,” this donor said. “The other way is that they just got spooked and overreacted.”
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has conceded that at least one of the recent attacks, the kindergarten fiasco, was a misstep, and her aides have since sought to steer the public conversation back to the campaign’s talking points: that as the potential first woman president, she is every much as bit a change agent as Mr. Obama, and that, most importantly, she alone has the experience to govern without any need for on-the-job training.
“I think at the end of the day there is a question, and I don’t think it has been put to bed adequately, and it is, who has experience,” said Hassan Nemazee, a key donor for Mrs. Clinton who plans to visit Iowa as a surrogate this weekend.
He suggested that the Clinton campaign wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—stray from its original line of criticism of Mr. Obama, which all centers on the very basic idea that he’s not ready to be president.
“When you come up with something new, the electorate is left sort of scratching their heads and saying, where is yesterday’s message, where is the consistency,” Mr. Nemazee said.
Certainly, even as the polls show Mr. Obama narrowing Mrs. Clinton’s once-formidable lead, they also seem to demonstrate the importance of her experience-based arguments. In a Dec. 11 CBS/New York Times poll, 48 percent of Democratic primary voters chose “right experience” as an important quality in their nominee, as opposed to 39 percent who chose “fresh ideas.”
The same evening that poll was released, a new e-mail from the Clinton campaign dropped into reporters’ in-boxes.
The headline: “Obama Forced to Defend Electability in Face of New Poll & Discovery of Questionnaire.”