DAVENPORT, Iowa—The candidates drawing the biggest crowds of curious Democrats this winter—Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois—are offering the party starkly different approaches to politics.
Clinton talks tough about Republicans. She went after President Bush by name in her kickoff campaign speech, then vowed to Democrats in Iowa and later in Washington that she knows how to fight Republicans.
"When you're attacked, you have to deck your opponents," she said to cheers from Iowa Democrats. "I want to run a positive, issue-oriented, visionary campaign. But you can count on me to stand my ground and fight back."
No stranger to bare-knuckle politics, Clinton knows how to win, and her style would perpetuate the kind of politics the country has enjoyed—or endured—for more than a decade.
Obama didn't even mention Bush in his preliminary announcement, and he targeted a different enemy when he addressed the Democratic National Committee in Washington last week.
"It's going to be cynicism that we're fighting against," he said to applause.
"It's the cynicism that's born from decades of disappointment, amplified by talk radio and 24-hour news cycle; reinforced by the relentless pounding of negative ads that have become the staple of modern politics. It's a cynicism that asks us to believe that our opponents are never just wrong, that they're bad; that our motives in politics can never be pure, that they're only driven by power and by greed . . .
"And if this is true, then politics is not a noble calling, it's a game, it's a blood sport with folks keeping score about who's up and who's down."
Perhaps Obama could change that. But first he has to win. And he has to win over the party activists who to dominate the nominating process—many of whom love to rip Republicans.
Reviews are mixed in Iowa, which will lead off the nominating process next January.
It's also where Democrats first embraced the finger-in-their-eye campaign of Howard Dean, now their national chairman, then shunned him for the cooler style of John Kerry, then watched in dismay as Kerry was pummeled by Republican attacks.
"Obama appears to be a compromiser," said Joan Bouchard of Davenport, Iowa. "As much as I'd like to knock down my opponents, I've learned in life that you have to work with people to get things done."
"He's naive," said Deborah Camper, a health-care manager from Iowa City, Iowa. "She (Clinton) knows how politics works. She knows it's a knock-down, drag-out fight."
"There's a definite difference between the two of them," said Wayne Hean, a welder from Davenport who said that he's torn between the two but hungry for a fight.
"If Hillary wants to take it to the mat, she should take it to the mat. If you want to help the middle class, if you want health care, you have to fight. There's only so many times you can get punched in the nose before you punch back."