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Starting Gate: Rising Tension And Raising Expectations

The gloves are off – sort of. Barack Obama has signaled that the time has come for him to begin drawing distinctions between himself and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. In an interview with the New York Times heading into the weekend, Obama said "now is the time" to start talking about Clinton and said he does not believe the New York Senator has been completely truthful with voters about what she would do if elected.

Campaigning in Iowa, Obama gave a glimpse at his more aggressive approach, noting that Clinton has not answered questions about her approach to dealing with Social Security and characterizing her political approach as: "You should hedge, dodge and spin, but at all costs, don't answer." As if to emphasize that point, Obama released a new ad in Iowa on the topic, taking a veiled jab at Clinton.

"We've got 78 million baby boomers who are going to be retiring," Obama says in the ad. "There's going to be more money going out than money coming in. If we have failed to have a real, honest conversation about Social Security, it will not get fixed. This is a program that millions of people depend on. … I don't want to just put my finger out to the wind and see what the polls say. I want to bring the country together to solve a problem." On the screen, the ad spells out Obama's "principles" on Social Security: "Protect benefits, No privatization of Social Security, End Social Security tax exemption for the wealthy."

Much of the attention to Obama's aggressive new tone has been centered on the Clinton campaign's response to it. Every time Obama or his campaign have even teetered to the edge of saying something critical, the Clinton camp responds that by pointing out that Obama has long eschewed negative politics and has promised to change the tone of the campaign. He responded to that in the Times interview, saying, "The notion that somehow changing the tone means simply that we let them say whatever they want to say or that there are no disagreements and that we're all holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' is obviously not what I had in mind and not how I function. And anybody who thinks I have, hasn't been paying attention." If voters haven't been paying attention, they will soon have another chance. The Democratic candidates will gather tomorrow night for yet another debate and expectations will be sky-high for some fireworks between Obama and Clinton.

"President-In-Waiting" Takes On A Whole New Meaning: Clinton's pledge to launch an aggressive diplomatic push after being elected – but before taking office – has some foreign policy wonks raising eyebrows. Clinton recently said, "The day after I'm elected, I'm going to be asking distinguished Americans of both political parties to travel around the world on my behalf with a very simple message to the governments and the people alike: The era of cowboy diplomacy is over." But doing so could potentially lead to a situation where the nation is pursuing two separate foreign policies. "The danger is that you have two presidents conducting foreign policy, one with all the power and no moral authority, and one with no power," scholar James Lindsey tells the Des Moines Register.

And Rudy Giuliani seized on Clinton's comments while campaigning in New Hampshire, according to AP. "We can have our political debate in this country," he said, adding, "but nobody should be creating the specter that we're sending emissaries out around the world before someone is actually sworn in as president of the United States."

Side Effects May Include … John Edwards is taking aim at those ubiquitous pharmaceutical ads on television and is calling for a two-year waiting period before drug companies can market new products. "You've seen these ads. You know who's paying for them, right? You are," Edwards said. "Basically, they do what they want, and they're driving up demand for the most expensive and most profitable drugs." Edwards said he would also call for more penalties for companies proven to have broken truth-in-advertising laws and require more disclosure about possible side effects.

Around The Track

  • Iowa Democrats last night joined Republicans in selecting January 3rd as the caucus date, helping to clear up the primary calendar a tad more. Nobody knows just what the overall impact will be in holding the contests so closely after the Holiday season but the speculation has begun.
  • The Boston Globe corrects the record about an oft-used Clinton quote – or, as it turns out, misquote. In an interview with the paper's editorial board, Clinton was quoted saying, "I have a million ideas. The country can't afford them all." Giuliani even brought the quote up in a debate, using it as a way to cast Clinton as a big spender. But the Globe insists: "All in good fun, perhaps, until you learn that Clinton was saying she opposes big government spending, not the other way around."
  • A new study finds that the media has overwhelmingly focused on campaign strategy and tactics over policy and issues.
  • The same study also found that five candidates – Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, McCain and Romney have received over half of the coverage thus far.
  • Mike Huckabee topped a poll of activists at the Iowa GOP's Reagan Dinner.
  • Clinton has a large lead in a new poll, with 37 percent of respondents to an AP-Ipsos survey saying her likeness would be the scariest Halloween costume from among all presidential candidates. Rudy Giuliani was the choice of 14 percent and no other candidate received more than 6 percent. (Note: an early version of this post mistakenly omitted Giuliani).
  • Religion is playing a key role for both parties in South Carolina says the state's top political observer Lee Bandy. "Hardly a day passes without a candidate being asked a question about his faith," he notes.