Obama to showcase tough side in Philadelphia debate

Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia will be the first test on the national stage for Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaModerate or left of center — which is better for Democrats in 2020? Obama: Countries facing severe effects of climate change offer 'moral call to rest of the world' Democrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability MORE (Ill.) to carry through on his pledge to engage rival and Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) more directly and forcefully.

In a weekend interview with The New York Times, Obama said “now is the time” for him to step up his efforts to knock Clinton off the top spot.

Obama has implicitly criticized  Clinton and her policies repeatedly, mostly recently in an ad released over the weekend that contained indirect references to the senator. The ad, entitled “Winds,” is an apparent attempt to hit Clinton for her reluctance to commit to an answer in a question about Social Security posed during the last Democratic debate.

In the ad, Obama notes that 78 million “baby boomers” will soon be retiring, and if “we have failed to have a real conversation about Social Security, it will not get fixed.”

“I don’t want to just put my finger out to the winds and see what the polls say,” Obama says. “I want to bring the country together to solve a problem.

But the senator does not address Clinton by name, likely leaving most voters clueless about the ad’s intent and lending some credence to the belief of some analysts that Obama is unwilling to engage fully in political blood sport.

Obama will share the national spotlight in Tuesday night’s debate with Clinton and the rest of the field, with the exception of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who was not invited by NBC, the debate’s sponsor. This will give Obama a high-profile opportunity to more directly confront Clinton.

Obama’s campaign insisted their candidate is ready.

“The fact is that the candidates are not carbon copies, and Sen. Obama has some distinctive policy differences with Sen. Clinton, including his opposition to the war in Iraq from the beginning, his opposition to an amendment that raises the risk of war with Iran and his belief that people are looking for answers on how to strengthen Social Security,” Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, said.

Anticipating the Clinton campaign’s by now standard line that Obama is abandoning the politics of hope, Psaki said in an e-mail that Obama is merely looking to illustrate the policy differences he has with Clinton.

“Anyone who is critical of his attempt to discuss the policy differences clearly underestimates the intelligence of voters,” Psaki said.

Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who is supporting Clinton, said Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) waited too late to go after Clinton, allowing her to solidify her position as front-runner.

“I think they’re in an impossible position,” Elmendorf said.

Elmendorf said that by announcing the campaign’s strategy to step up confrontations with Clinton, Obama basically acknowledges that he knows he’s in trouble.

“He certainly telegraphed that punch, which isn’t always the best way to do this,” Elmendorf said. “Time is running out, and they clearly know that.”

The New York Times reported that several Obama supporters have been critical of the Illinois senator’s apparent reluctance to criticize Clinton aggressively.

Edwards, on the other hand, has been more outspoken by far in going after the front-runner, and he indicated Monday that he might be capable of moving that criticism into a higher gear.

In a speech in New Hampshire on Monday, Edwards railed against Washington and corruption, and the former senator was not shy in his criticisms of Clinton. Singling her out by name for accepting lobbyist money, Edwards hit Clinton hard, comparing her unfavorably to Republican candidates.

“She took more money from Wall Street last quarter than Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama combined,” Edwards said, according to a copy of his speech provided by the campaign.  “The long slow slide of our democracy into the corporate abyss continues unabated regardless of party, regardless of the best interests of America. We have a duty — a duty to end this.”

A new poll out Monday morning shows the race remains tight in Iowa, where Democrats over the weekend officially decided to move their caucuses to Jan. 3.

A University of Iowa Hawkeye poll showed Clinton leading Obama 29 percent to 27, a statistical tie. Edwards, who led in the state for most of the year, appears to have lost some support in the crucial state, as the poll now shows the former senator at 20 percent.