CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned the courage and character of her chief opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, Sunday in the wake of a new poll finding her campaign is losing ground in this crucial early-voting state.
With the Iowa caucuses one month away, Clinton unleashed her harshest critique yet of Obama, saying he "blinked" in offering a health care plan that didn't give all Americans coverage and is being disingenuous as he touts it. And Clinton questioned whether Obama's political action committee was violating Federal Election Commission rules.
Obama dismissed Clinton's broadside, saying it was prompted by his rise in the polls.
Health care has emerged as a major issue of substance between Obama and Clinton. Clinton says her plan would cover all Americans and criticized Obama for offering a plan that, many independent analysts say, could leave as many as 15 million Americans uninsured (currently, about 45 million Americans lack health insurance).
Clinton mocked Obama for describing his plan in different ways: "It's universal, or virtually universal, or comprehensive."
"It's obvious that he doesn't want to face up to the very position he took," Clinton said. "Because every time he changes his posture. He uses different words to describe it. He puts forth a different explanation for it. So at some point you've got to ask yourself, who's really committed here?"
On the PAC issue, Clinton said that, based on legal advice, she shut down her own leadership PAC when she decided to run for president. In 2006, her PAC, HillPAC, distributed tens of thousands of dollars to democratic candidates across the country.
It's been reported that Obama's PAC, Hopefund, this year distributed tens of thousands of dollars to candidates in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Such PACs, known as leadership PACs, are routinely used by politicians to curry favor with other politicians.
Obama called Clinton's attacks on his PAC as "outlandish accusations."
"Everything that we've done is in exact accordance with the law," Obama said at a press conference in Des Moines.
Asked whether it was a question of Obama's character, Clinton at first said that was for voters to decide. Then she said: "It's beginning to look a lot like that. It really is. You know, you can't get a straight answer on health care...Somebody runs on ethics and not taking money from certain people, is found out to have at least skirted, if not violated the FEC rules, and to use lobbyists and PAC money to do so."
A new Des Moines Register poll released Sunday showed Clinton trailing Obama, 28 percent to 25 percent. In October, the poll showed Clinton leading Obama, 29 percent to 22 percent. In both polls, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was at 23 percent.
The poll indicated Clinton had lost ground in two key areas: among union households, where she went from 34 percent to 21 percent; and among women, where she went from 34 percent to 26 percent.
The Register poll was of 500 likely Democratic caucus goers, and had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
According to a compilation of recent polls at realclearpolitics.com, Obama has emerged with a slim lead of 1.4 percent over the last three weeks - well within the margin of error.
Clinton indicated to reporters Sunday that she hoped more attacks on Obama would fuel her comeback.
"Now the fun part starts," she declared. "We're into the last month, and we're going to start drawing a contrast, because I want every Iowan to have accurate information when they make their decisions."
Later, Obama issued a statement decrying Clinton for saying the coming weeks would be "fun."
"Washington insiders might think throwing mud is fun, but the American people are looking for leadership that can unite this country around a common purpose, and that's what I'll continue to offer in this campaign," Obama said.