Sunday, December 10, 2006

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama can threaten New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s early lead for the Democratic presidential nomination by challenging her vote for the Iraq war, opposition to a speedy troop withdrawal and support for free trade, party strategists said over the weekend.

Mrs. Clinton remained the clear front-runner in her party for 2008 in national polls late last week in a field of nearly a dozen Democratic hopefuls. But some campaign advisers and party officials in pivotal caucus and primary states say she is vulnerable on the war and for taking establishment positions on issues her party’s liberal base opposes.

Mrs. Clinton, in what critics say is an effort to tone down her liberal image, has allied herself with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, embracing its more hawkish defense posture on the war and free-trade issues that are considered poison to the party’s populist left wing, which blames the global economy and unfettered trade for America’s declining manufacturing-job base.

“Barack Obama is a threat to Hillary, but only if he makes a contrasting case against her,” said Democratic adviser David Sirota, a top strategist in Ned Lamont’s come-from-behind Democratic primary upset over Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who went on to win the general election as an independent.

“If it’s a popularity contest between two well-known Democratic politicians, then he isn’t much of a threat. But if he starts campaigning on the issues of the Iraq war, on economic issues in contrast to Hillary, who voted for the war resolution, opposed calls for early troop withdrawals and supports free-trade issues that have destroyed jobs here, then he’s a real, major threat,” Mr. Sirota said.

These Democrats say he has the political talent and grass-roots appeal to overtake Mrs. Clinton in a party that is hungry for new leadership.

And now for the first time a few of them are saying she is vulnerable on issues that Mr. Obama has campaigned and voted against — especially her identification as an insider in the Washington establishment.

“She has deliberately not used her microphone to challenge the establishment, period. She is an establishment figure. She has chosen to be that,” Mr. Sirota said.

Similar criticism of Mrs. Clinton is beginning to emerge publicly and privately among Democrats in key primary and caucus states, where Mr. Obama has electrified Democratic audiences during the midterm campaign with his oratory and an optimistic message that has won rave reviews from rank-and-file party members.

“I think it’s a strong likelihood Obama could become a front-runner,” said Sandy Opstvedt of Story City, Iowa, a member of the Democratic National Committee who supported Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential election cycle but is uncommitted at this point.

“He has the ability to inspire audiences. Voters are looking for someone who can express that enthusiasm and achieve changes. A lot of people are frustrated by the lack of ability to get things done and are looking for a candidate who can do that,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton’s support for the war and her rebuke of House Democrats who called for a quick troop withdrawal “will most likely cause her problems” with the party’s antiwar base, she said.

Another Democratic official in a key primary state who did not want to be named said, “She is vulnerable on the war that Barack campaigned against in his Senate race and on other issues. If he focuses on these, and sharpens the differences, he could get a lot of support from Democrats who voted against the war in November.”

But Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that “if Barack runs, he should run to win the presidency and not run to defeat Hillary Clinton.”

“Barack has something that is awfully missing today in American politics: the gift of charisma. Most people find him not just attractive, but politically viable. He has cross-over appeal and the ability to attract moderates and independents,” she told The Washington Times.

Mr. Obama said last month that he is now actively considering running for president, and party officials say he has been quietly talking to Democratic campaign strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire, among other primary states.

Despite Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status, Ray Buckley, the state party’s vice chairman, said that 13 months before the New Hampshire primary, “the race is wide open here. Nobody has 30 percent, and it can be anybody’s victory.” He said Mrs. Clinton “has kept in touch with people here,” but added that “she certainly understands this is not going to be a race won behind a podium, but won by old-fashioned shoe leather.”

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