MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa -- The frantic final days before Thursday night's Iowa Democratic caucuses have featured grueling bus tours, overflow crowds, ringing applause lines and, amid all the frenzy, a surprisingly sophisticated debate about the personal qualities and governing strategies the next president will need to succeed. It is as if a philosophical argument broke out about the Federalist Papers in the middle of a bar fight.
Obama, Edwards and Clinton are presenting Iowa Democrats three distinct visions of how the party can win back the White House.
Disputes over issues have almost completely evaporated in the campaign's final days. Instead, the leading contenders -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards -- are debating whether Washington experience is an asset or an obstacle in promoting change, whether a president can negotiate with interests generally opposed to his or her agenda and what mix of confrontation and conciliation in the capital is most likely to produce progress.
The top candidates are fighting on this ground largely because they (as well as second-tier competitors Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson) have converged on most issues, a significant development itself in a party often riven by ideological strife. But the leading candidates are also focusing so heavily on these questions because, in fact, they offer clearly contrasting styles and strategies of leadership rooted in their divergent personal experiences.
"Because their closing arguments on this stylistic question is so consistent and expressive of their biographies, I think it actually does have meaning for how they would govern," said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a leading liberal advocacy group. "Yes, it is campaign rhetoric, and they are trying to distinguish themselves. But it is not just that."
As they caravan across the state, literally crossing each other's tracks almost every day, Obama, Edwards and Clinton are presenting Iowa Democrats three distinct visions of how the party can win back the White House -- and the way it will govern if it does.
Obama emphasizes his determination to transcend Washington's bitter partisanship by building new electoral and legislative coalitions and providing "a seat at the table" even for powerful interests like the insurance and oil industry that have frequently warred with Democrats.
"We can't afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington that's about scoring political points instead of solving problems," Obama insisted last week in a Des Moines speech launching his final sprint through Iowa. "I've learned in my life that you can stand firm on your principles while still reaching out to those who might not always agree with you."
Edwards has seized the other pole in the debate, aligning himself with liberal activists ranging from the founders of the most militant Democratic Web sites like the Daily Kos to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Many of them ridicule the possibility of bipartisan cooperation in such a polarized era. With blowtorch intensity, Edwards is delivering an anti-corporate, populist message more uncompromising than any heard in a Democratic presidential race since at least Jesse Jackson in 1988 and possibly Fred Harris in 1976. Edwards derides as a "complete fantasy" Obama's argument that Democrats can achieve their goals while reaching out to business interests and Republicans. Instead, Edwards insists, change can come only through an "epic fight" that he is uniquely equipped to wage.
"All the fancy words in the world will change nothing," he declared with the aural equivalent of a sneer before one audience last weekend. "You'd better send somebody into this arena that is ready for this fight, somebody that has got the guts and the determination to fight for you and your children."
In responding, Obama has hedged his bets. From one direction, he has argued that Edwards' promise of undiluted confrontation is unlikely to produce results. ("There's no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there," Obama said. "We don't need more heat. We need more light.") But Obama has also amplified the populist tone in his own stump speech and heavily aired a television ad in which he rails against companies that shift jobs overseas -- a perennial concern in a state whose manufacturing base has contracted for decades.
Clinton, characteristically, has sought a place between Obama and Edwards. In her speeches, she touts both her ability to work with Republicans (such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham) and her willingness to fight them when necessary. "It drives them crazy, but I'm still here and I'm still standing," she told a Mt. Pleasant audience in the speech that launched her final campaign swing last week.
Clinton's argument that she knows when to offer the iron fist and when the velvet glove fits into her overarching message in the final days: that she has the experience to handle the challenges of the presidency from "day one" and to deliver the change that Obama and Edwards talk about. "It comes down to this," she says in a two-minute closing argument ad scheduled to run Wednesday night on every Iowa television station with a dinner-time newscast. "Who is ready to be president and ready to start solving the big challenges we face on day one?"
These distinctions, although simplified and exaggerated by the campaigns' need to differentiate themselves from each other, draw on deep wells in each of the contenders' lives. Obama is the child of mixed-race, mixed-nationality parents; his father was a black Kenyan and his mother a white American. He has been a bridge-builder almost everywhere he's spent time in his adult life -- from Harvard Law School, where he mediated between racial and ideological factions as the first American-American president of the Law Review, to the Illinois state Senate, where he partnered with Republicans on campaign finance and ethics reform and expanding health care for children.
Edwards was shaped by his years as a trial lawyer, an inherently adversarial experience that he now cites as the source of his vision for governing. "This is what I learned," he said. "If you're tough enough, if... you're willing to work hard enough, you're smart enough, you can beat these people.... But all of the nice words in the world won't help."
Clinton, although she's only held elected office since 2001, has spent much more time directly in the political arena than either of her rivals. She has the scars to prove it after battling over education reform in Arkansas during the 1980s, health care reform in Washington in the 1990s and serving as Bill Clinton's consiglieri throughout his turbulent political career. Like her husband, Hillary Clinton has balanced a commitment to consensus as a strategy with a street-fighter's instinct to immediately respond to a punch with a punch of her own -- and if anything, she has displayed an impulse toward confrontation that is even greater than her husband's. Intellectually, she is closer to Obama; emotionally, to Edwards.
Bill Galston, a former deputy domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the candidates' competing messages also reflect contrasting assessments of whether it is possible, or even desirable, for the next president to abate Washington's intense partisan polarization.
"The Edwards vision is classic political trench warfare: There is one fixed line. There is no way of going around it or over it; you have to fight your way through it," Galston noted. "And Obama is saying, 'No, no, no, the situation is much more fluid than that.... We can reconfigure the battle through an act of political imagination [in building new coalitions] and then executing a plan of battle that reflects that.'"
Clinton is largely reserving judgment on how much the next president can change the environment and presenting herself as someone who can adapt to either continued conflict or a thaw, said Galston, who is supporting her. "Her thesis is you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them," he says. "She is trying to position herself... as someone who doesn't underestimate the enmity or the obstacles, but who doesn't think of the current political divisions as simply fixed points."
To a striking extent, Iowa voters have internalized these distinctions and are using them to guide their decisions. Recent ABC News/Washington Post and Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg surveys both found Clinton trouncing Obama among Iowa Democrats who place the highest priority on experience and Obama routing Clinton among those most interested in a candidate who offers new ideas. Edwards also does much better with the new ideas group than those focused on experience.
The feelings surface even more powerfully in conversations with voters in the huge crowds that the Democratic contenders are attracting in their final campaign appearances. Obama stirs probably the most passionate attachments: His supporters see him as a transcendent leader with the potential to remake politics at home and recast America's image abroad. Comparisons to former President John F. Kennedy come frequently and without prompting.
"I think people need a leader we can point to with pride and say that's our president," Patrick Kremer, a retired school administrator, said just before Obama spoke in Marshalltown. "People felt that way about JFK. And I sense that about Obama."
In conversation, Obama supporters of widely varying age, occupation and apparently income, all return to the same words to describe him: fresh, new, inspirational, unifying. They brush off the Clinton camp's argument that he lacks enough experience.
"Leadership does not always have to be a whole lot of experience," said Craig McCoy of Des Moines, who teaches graduate level courses on management at two online universities. "Leadership is also those can bring others to the table and learn from them." And while frequently expressing admiration for Clinton's grit and tenacity, Obama supporters routinely argue that she's too polarizing to win -- or to govern effectively if she does.
The frame is inverted among those supporting Clinton and Edwards. Almost all of those interviewed at their events praised Obama, but many viewed him as the equivalent of a brilliant baseball rookie who needs more time before he's ready for the major leagues.
"I really like Obama; I think he is a poetic speaker and a visionary," said Jewel Marie McDonald, the director of a creative arts center, as she waited for Clinton to arrive in Mt. Pleasant. "But he's not seasoned. He has no idea what is going to happen when he gets there and we have no idea if he can stand up to it."
McDonald is hardly alone in that sentiment. In the Times/Bloomberg survey, 52 percent of likely caucus-goers said they did not believe Obama was prepared for the presidency, while just 43 percent believed he was. By contrast, nearly 80 percent thought Clinton was sufficiently prepared.
That conviction -- even more than the opportunity to make history by electing the first woman president or admiration for her husband -- provides the foundation of Clinton's Iowa support. While Obama and Edwards argue she's too familiar with Washington to change it, her supporters see her as the sole Democrat savvy and tough enough to succeed.
"I think John Edwards is a little more progressive than Hillary, and so is Barack. But my confidence in them actually getting it done is not quite there," said Brian McDonald, Jewel's husband. "It's like Hillary says: It's one thing to want change. It's another to say I've got the chops to get it done."
Edwards doesn't seem to fit along the experience vs. change continuum that shapes the choice between Clinton and Obama for most voters. His supporters offer a wider assortment of reasons for supporting him: his working-class upbringing, admiration for his wife Elizabeth, his compelling speaking style. With Edwards running such an unabashedly liberal campaign, they are also more likely than those backing the others to cite his issue positions, such as his hard line on trade.
But attitudes toward him appear to be dividing primarily on reactions to the uncompromising and even belligerent populist message he now delivers. (National Journal/NBC News embedded reporter Tricia Miller counted Edwards using variations on the word "fight" 31 times in one of his stump speeches last weekend.) That sledgehammer style has driven away Tim Wynes, who supported Edwards in 2004.
"His message is so divisive this time…there's no way he can succeed," said Wynes, the president of a community college in Marshalltown. "It's the liberal version of Bush. Edwards has gone from being a compassionate progressive to a guy who just writes people off."
But Edwards' anti-corporate ardor roused a huge labor-oriented crowd that repeatedly interrupted him with loud ovations during a speech in Des Moines last Saturday night. "I like his passion," said Kim Hagemann, a patent agent from Ankeny, as she filed out. "I like that he's not talking about negotiating. We're the voters, not the companies. This is our country, not corporate America's." The Times/Bloomberg Iowa poll also found Edwards surging to a substantial lead among blue-collar men.
Foreign policy adds a final twist to this intriguing debate. On domestic issues, the candidates are arguing over who can best instigate change. In foreign policy matters, Clinton is trying to kindle an argument over which one can best respond to change.
In her final appearances, she has stressed the likelihood that the next president will face challenges and crises "none of us can predict now" and, in effect, asked voters who they trust to pick up the receiver when the phone rings in the White House in the middle of the night. That argument -- reminiscent of the famous "red telephone" ad that another front-runner, Walter Mondale, effectively used in 1984 against another insurgent opponent, Gary Hart -- may have been given added weight for Democratic voters with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week.
But neither that experience argument, nor Obama's insistence on "fundamental change, big change, not tinkering around the edges change," nor Edwards' promise of "an epic fight" with "entrenched interests that are standing between you and the country... you deserve" shows any signs of completely trumping the others. The relentless polls blowing through Iowa like snow squalls vary in whether they show Clinton, Edwards or Obama leading, but they converge in showing the three bunched tightly together.
Not only is the overall Iowa electorate closely divided, so are many individual voters. It's not uncommon to meet Democrats who perceive offsetting strengths in each of the major candidates and the alternative electoral and governing strategies they offer. After a full year of campaigning that has shattered all records for spending and intensity, many Iowa Democrats can see virtues not only in the candidates they have chosen but also in the road not taken -- and that's one reason why none of the campaigns can approach Thursday's pivotal verdict with much confidence about the outcome.
-- National Journal/NBC News reporter Athena Jones contributed to this report from Iowa.