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Subtle and obvious differences on the trail

Democrats vary on style; GOP on issues

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos and Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / December 30, 2007

DES MOINES - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have the same line about the Iraq war: They will call in the Joint Chiefs "on day one" to seek the quickest responsible way out.

John Edwards agrees, and he and Clinton also have nearly identical slogans about supporting the middle class. They and Obama also recite the same litany of economic changes, from closing tax loopholes for companies that move jobs overseas to eliminating the Bush tax cut for the wealthy. Obama even acknowledged at a recent campaign stop that all the Democrats have good healthcare plans.

While the major Democratic presidential candidates share largely the same platform, the top-tier Republicans have fundamental differences on major issues, from Mike Huckabee's plan to replace the income tax with a sales tax, to Rudy Giuliani's support for abortion rights, to John McCain's opposition to harsh interrogation measures. And the GOP candidates disagree on how to handle illegal immigration.

With the first voting of the 2008 presidential race starting in Iowa this week, the differences in the two races reflect the state of the major parties - with Democrats more unified than in recent years, and Republicans in the midst of redefining themselves. Those differences are also shaping the candidates' final appeals to voters in the run-up to Thursday's Iowa caucuses, according to strategists.

The Republican race has come down to a competition among various voting blocs - from evangelical Christians to economic conservatives to the many working-class voters attracted by the party's stance on the war on terrorism, but who are now demanding tougher action against illegal immigrants.

Thus, GOP candidates are seeking to separate themselves on issues, while nailing down specific GOP constituencies. Huckabee is working through the Christian media with a message of faith and social conservatism.

"I'm a prolife person," Huckabee told a crowd on Thursday in Des Moines, explaining that everyone has "an intrinsic value or worth," and that human rights are "loaned from God."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is second to Huckabee in most Iowa polls, is stressing a tougher line on crime, blanketing local television with ads calling attention to the 1,033 pardons and commutations given by Huckabee in nearly a decade as governor of Arkansas.

Both Romney and Huckabee have taken hard-line stances against illegal immigration, seeking to isolate McCain, who initially supported an ambitious bipartisan reform bill that would have created a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.

The Democratic race, meanwhile, has come down to questions of character and leadership - differences that the candidates insist are as stark as the policy disputes on the Republican side.

"I think there are major areas of agreement [on issues]," said David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama. "A lot of these questions are questions about style and their approach to leadership. . . . It's a question of consistency and forthrightness."

Indeed, the candidates' styles have become so much of the substance of the Democratic campaign that when Clinton spoke in the gym of the Roland-Story Elementary School in Story City on Friday, a sign on the wall virtually defined the race: "Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference."

Clinton told voters that all the Democrats want change, but that she has been working longer and harder for it. All aspects of her speech - from a detailed discussion of the crisis in Pakistan, to explanations of various social programs she has enacted in her career, to a warning that the next president must be ready to meet immediate challenges - sought to portray her as a seasoned, gritty, committed political survivor.

"Republicans have been after me for 16 years and, much to their dismay, I'm still here," she said.

Obama, for his part, offers voters the promise of a fresh start, with a clean slate. He says people are tired of partisanship and want action. The issue for Democratic voters, he says on the campaign trail, is not which candidate has the best healthcare plan - they're all good - but rather which candidate will be able to deliver on healthcare.

To Obama, Democrats have been unable to make progress on core concerns like universal healthcare because of a selfish Beltway political culture that puts partisanship ahead of the national interest; electing Clinton, he said, would perpetuate the existing "Washington game with the same Washington players."

"You know that 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 - that's about tearing your opponents down instead of lifting this country up," Obama said last week.

Edwards, too, says Washington should be shaken up, but he believes it will require more fighting, not less.

"You better send a fighter into that arena," he told voters Friday night in Davenport. But politicians are not his main targets: Special interests are the force that must be quelled.

"Corporate greed has infiltrated everything that is happening in this country," Edwards said at the Davenport event, as supporters donned T-shirts saying "Edwards Walks the Walk."

Still, some voters seemed to see few disputes of substance between the major Democrats. Even Sandra Engstrom, 59, a committed Edwards supporter from Davenport, said there were only "somewhat small" differences between Edwards, Clinton, Obama, and other Democrats. "I think Edwards has electability in the general election," she said.

Voters interviewed at Clinton and Obama events last week had the same concerns: They felt all the candidates were largely the same on the issues, so they had to judge by other factors.

"I guess you've got to go on the actual people and their personalities and if they seem sincere," offered Lars Skaar, 26, of Story City, an undecided voter who acknowledged a slight preference for Clinton because "Bill Clinton didn't do a bad job in office and he'll be there advising her."

Some analysts including Daron Shaw, a political scientist at the University of Texas, have said that Obama could suffer the most from the lack of debate over issues in the Democratic race: As the "new JFK," promising a new kind of politics, Obama has a responsibility to set an agenda, Shaw said.

If voters don't perceive enough of a difference, Shaw said, Obama will be vulnerable to the kind of "Where's the beef" argument that famously doomed Colorado Senator Gary Hart in his generational battle against former vice president Walter Mondale in 1984.

But Ellen Fitzpatrick, a presidential historian at the University of New Hampshire, said Obama has been especially good at presenting himself as the embodiment of a new order.

"There's so much focus on electability and symbolism - 'I'm a symbol of change, I'm a symbol of continuity, I'm a symbol of family values' - throughout this campaign," said Fitzpatrick. "One of the things Barack Obama has exploited successfully is being a symbol of hope, a fresh face, and newness and change."

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