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Crisscrossing Iowa, Clinton and Obama argue experience

Times Staff Writer

Amid new polling that points to a shift in momentum in this crucial state, Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama made arguments Monday that electing the other would prove a costly mistake.

In a morning campaign stop, the New York senator suggested that her colleague from Illinois was not fit to oversee a U.S. economy where more families are struggling to keep their homes and pay medical bills. She avoided mentioning Obama by name, but her campaign staff later confirmed that she was talking about him when she said: “Every day spent learning the ropes is another day of rising costs, mounting deficits, and growing anxiety for our families.”

Speaking in Knoxville, Iowa, Clinton added: “We need a president who understands the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face and has the strength and experience to address them from Day One.”

Obama, who is halfway through his first Senate term, sounded a feisty note when asked to reply at a news conference here later in the morning.

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“If Sen. Clinton or her campaign spin team asks me the question” about his level of experience, “my response is to say that our economic plan and our approach on these issues, I think, has been superior to hers,” he said. “And that’s part of the reason I’m running for office.”

He also questioned whether Clinton, a former first lady, had done anything in life to make her a better option for voters worried about an economic slump. By comparison, Obama said he learned firsthand about personal hardship as a community organizer, attorney, law professor and elected official.

“I am happy to compare my experience to hers when it comes to the economy,” Obama said. “My understanding was she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don’t know exactly what experience she’s claiming.”

The quarrel came as a new poll showed that Clinton, despite her large national lead, had yet to pull ahead in Iowa, the first test in the 2008 campaign. Iowa’s caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 3.

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A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed a tight three-way race, with Obama supported by 30% of likely caucus-goers, Clinton by 26%, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards by 22%. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

In July, a Post/ABC poll showed Obama with 27%, compared with 26% each for Clinton and Edwards.

With the state up for grabs, the campaigning here is ceaseless. Clinton made four appearances on Monday and is scheduled to make two more today, along with a visit to a shelter in Des Moines.

Her husband, former President Clinton, will be appearing in Iowa “quite frequently” in the run-up to the caucuses, said Mark Daley, a campaign spokesman.

“If you remember the phrase used at the beginning of the Iraq war -- ‘shock and awe’ -- that’s the way her campaign is approaching this apparent threat,” said Dennis Goldford, politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “They’re just trying to hit it with an overwhelming response. In politics, appearance is reality, and they don’t want the perception to get out that she’s slipping or is weak or could well lose this. So what they’ll be trying to do is head that off as quickly as possible.”

As they crisscrossed Iowa in separate campaign stops, Obama seldom mentioned Clinton’s name, and Clinton avoided his. Yet it seemed the two were holding an argument with one another across an expanse of hundreds of miles.

At issue was the question of experience -- how important it is in a future president and what sort is most valuable. Clinton contends that Obama is too unseasoned to be trusted with the presidency, and Obama maintains that a Washington insider is not what the nation needs.

Even in her delivery, Clinton tries to underscore her point. At a late afternoon rally in Vinton, she talked about her “strength and experience,” hitting the last word with special emphasis.

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Obama sought to parry the charge by painting Clinton as part of a Washington establishment incapable of ushering in real change.

He also described his unorthodox biography as a plus: As a child he lived abroad, and he still has relatives in Kenya, he told an audience at one of his campaign stops.

“Probably the strongest experience I have in foreign relations is the fact that I spent four years living overseas when I was a child in southeast Asia,” said Obama, who lived in Indonesia from age 6 to age 10.

“So a lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs isn’t just what I studied in school. It’s not just the work that I do on Senate Foreign Relations [Committee]. It’s actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live,” he said.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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