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Pure Horserace: Obama Talks Tough

Freshman Sen. Barack Obama has spent the past week sparring with Hillary Clinton about direct diplomacy with some of America's harshest adversaries and fending off suggestions that he's both too inexperienced and too soft to be commander in chief.

The question of experience will be settled at the ballot boxes next year, but Obama sent a message today that's tougher than even the current administration has been willing to be. The Illinois senator may have no problem meeting face-to-face with the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he said today he would not hesitate to use force to root out terrorist threats with military force — even within the borders of an occasional ally.

The headline from a broad speech on battling the threat of Islamic terrorism will be Obama's warning to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf that, as president, he would send troops into tribal areas of his country upon credible evidence that al Qaeda leaders are there. Pledging to make the U.S. departure from Iraq his top priority, Obama said he would also send two additional brigades to Afghanistan to fight Taliban and al Qaeda elements that have resurfaced in that country.

He also said he would pressure Pakistan by insisting on more cooperation from Musharraf in shutting down terrorist training camps and hunting down al Qaeda targets in the mountainous tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said. "But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Obama's comments touched on an area of growing concern among members of both parties and the national security establishment about the resurgence of al Qaeda's organization in Pakistan. Last month, a national intelligence estimate claimed that al Qaeda's relative safe haven in that region of Pakistan has allowed the group to rebuild its capacity to pre-9/11 levels. In a recent radio address, President Bush called the assessment "one of the most troubling" developments in the fight against terrorism. But he added a measure of support for Musharraf, who, he said, "recognizes the agreement" to allow tribal leaders to police the area "has not been successful or well-enforced and is taking active steps to correct" it.

Pakistan has been a delicate ally for the U.S. since 9/11, and Musharraf has sought to balance his support for the war on terrorism with Islamic extremists at home. Obama will likely be criticized by some for threatening to send troops into a nuclear-armed Muslim nation without its cooperation. But the tough talk highlights the growing concern about al Qaeda's growing threat to the U.S. homeland and puts Obama out in front of a popular goal — capturing or killing the terrorist group's leadership.

Obama also reiterated his criticism of his Democratic presidential opponents, most of whom voted to authorize the war in Iraq. Of that vote, Obama said, "Congress rubber-stamped the rush to war, giving the President the broad and open-ended authority he uses to this day. With that vote, Congress became co-author of a catastrophic war."

He also circled back to provide a slightly more nuanced answer to the question that caused a week-long exchange of words between himself and Hillary Clinton. When asked in a debate last week whether he would personally meet with leaders of nations like North Korea and Iran, Obama said he would, while Clinton insisted that she would not do so without knowing what could be achieved by such meetings.

Obama's response was characterized as "naïve" by Clinton and an example of his inexperience. Obama responded that Clinton's approach was nothing more than what the Bush administration has pursued. Analysts have been split over the impact of the back-and-forth, but Obama today appeared to put some conditions of his own on such talks. "I will do the careful preparation needed, and let these countries know where America stands. They will no longer have the excuse of American intransigence," he said before adding, "They will have our terms: no support for terror and no nuclear weapons." — Vaughn Ververs

GOP's California Dream? Last week we noted that North Carolina was on its way to adopting a plan that would apportion the state's electoral votes by congressional district, instead of the winner-take-all model now used there and in 47 other states. Such a plan would give Democrats a shot at winning up to six of the state's 15 electoral votes.

But at least one Republican has a plan on how to counter that, in a big way. According to The Associated Press, a lawyer in California is working to put a proposal on the state's June 2008 ballot that would put the North Carolina plan to use in the country's most populous state. If it were to pass, it would be a boon to Republicans — so much of one, some Democrats say, that a GOP presidential win would be virtually guaranteed.

For the past four elections, California has voted Democratic and, recently, Republicans haven't even bothered trying to win there. But a proportional representation model could give a Republican nominee up to 20 electoral votes — the state's inland areas, as well as Orange County and the San Diego area, are reliably conservative.

Of course, even if the plan gets on the ballot, it would have to be approved by the state's voters — 54 percent of whom voted for John Kerry in 2004. — David Miller

Tancredo Ups The Ante … A Lot: Looking strong in the fight against terrorism is key for any presidential campaign to succeed, especially in Republican circles. Based on his latest plan, Rep. Tom Tancredo clearly knows that, even though his proposed response to a terrorist attack is likely to raise eyebrows of liberals and conservatives alike.

Campaigning in Osceola, Iowa, on Tuesday, Tancredo said he would warn terrorist organizations and supporters that a catastrophic attack on the U.S. would be followed by attacks on Islam's most holy sites. "If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina," he said, according to IowaPolitics.com. "That is the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they would otherwise do. If I am wrong, fine, tell me, and I would be happy to do something else. But you had better find a deterrent or you will find an attack. There is no other way around it."

A plan that would make even Rudy Giuliani flinch? Probably. But it's a sure-fire way to draw attention to a long-shot bid. — David Miller

Stopping The Insanity: The trend of states moving up their presidential nominating contests, which has been in full swing for about a decade, seems to be reaching its logical (and, some would say, absurd) end point in this cycle. Dozens of states have moved, or are planning to move, their primaries or caucuses to Feb. 5. Florida is even threatening the sanctity of January (and, thus, Iowa and New Hampshire) by defying the political parties and moving its primary to Jan. 29.

Now, three senators have had enough. Bloomberg reports that Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have proposed legislation that would establish a regional primary system. Often touted as a way of restoring some order to the nominating process, the system would preserve Iowa and New Hampshire's "first in the nation" status while dividing the rest of the country into four regions. One region would go before the others every four election cycles.

The legislation, however, could face a substantial roadblock — the Constitution, which explicitly gives states the power to determine the "time, place and manner" of elections. — David Miller

On A Global Scale: In this age, presidential candidates are quick to discuss how they would combat terrorism or respond to an international crisis. Voters regularly put Iraq and terrorism among their top priorities. But does that matter once they enter the voting booth? According to CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic, it may not. A look at polls in the past shows Americans are willing to elect presidents who, at least when they enter office, don't have much foreign policy experience. To find out what this means for the current crop of White House hopefuls, especially Hillary Clinton, read this week's installment of Poll Positions.

Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller

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