CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — John Edwards isn't finding many nice things to say about Hillary Clinton, one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton won't promise to end American combat missions in Iraq, Edwards says. She's helping the Bush administration pave the way for military action in Iran. And she's too cozy with Washington lobbyists, from whom she accepts campaign contributions.
"Does anyone here believe that if we trade a crowd of corporate Republicans for corporate Democrats, there will be any change in Washington, D.C.?" Edwards asked more than 1,000 people packed into the Cole College auditorium in Cedar Rapids on Monday night.
"Noooo," is the cry of a crowd that had been warmed up by singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne with "Thing Called Love."
Edwards is becoming the most aggressive Democratic hopeful in going after the New York senator.
But now the other Democratic candidates are beginning to fire back, and Edwards has gone from being the hunter to the hunted.
Clinton accuses Edwards of "throwing mud." Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign says that Edwards is full of inconsistencies, citing the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate's support for organized labor after backing North Carolina's anti-union, right-to-work law as a Senate candidate in 1998. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson accuses Edwards of trying to start "a class war."
"I'm surprised at just how angry John has become," Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd said recently. "That is not the same John Edwards I once knew."
The new aggressiveness is a gamble for Edwards as he heads toward the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, which could make or break his White House ambitions.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week found that the race continues to be tight in Iowa. Obama was the choice of 30 percent of Iowa Democrats surveyed from Nov. 14-18, while Clinton was the choice of 26 percent. Edwards was the favorite of 22 percent, and Richardson was the choice of 11 percent of those polled.
But 43 percent of those polled said they might change their minds, and 20 percent said there's a good chance they will. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Edwards' recent aggressiveness, a dramatic change from the optimism that marked his 2004 run for the presidency, has sparked mixed reactions among Iowa voters.
Edwards' attacks have turned off voters such as Evelyn Bland, a 63-year-old farmer's wife from Shellsburg, Iowa. She'd been considering voting for Edwards, but now she says she'll back Clinton.
"All his negativity with Clinton — that turned me off," said Bland, who attended a Clinton rally on Monday in Vinton, Iowa. "I want them to tell me about what they are going to do, not what someone has done in the past."
But Ron Levine, a 56-year-old data system analyst from Cedar Rapids, said that Edwards was OK as long as he didn't engage in personal "Swift Boat" attacks on other candidates. Levine said he's trying to choose between Edwards and Obama.
"I don't like negative campaigning," Levine said at an Edwards rally in Cedar Rapids. "But I don't feel like he has crossed the line."
Edwards appears to be tapping into some anti-Washington anger, and some of his supporters say he needs to be even tougher on Clinton.
"I'm disappointed that he has not been more assertive with Hillary," said Jules Cohen, 71, a retired owner of a paper company from Bettendorf, Iowa. "While (President) Bush was robbing the bank, she (Clinton) was driving the getaway car."
Edwards has walked a fine line. He doesn't call Clinton corrupt, but he says that she's part of a corrupt system in Washington that's controlled by powerful drug, insurance and oil companies. Edwards says he respects Clinton's positions, but that voters have a right to know the difference between the candidates.
Edwards' criticism is directed almost exclusively at Clinton. He's vying with Obama for the anti-Clinton vote, so he's careful not to say anything that would alienate the many voters who are on the fence.
In an interview Tuesday at a Grinnell College event, Edwards said as much: "If (the voters) believe that I am fighting with everything I got on their behalf to make their lives better, they would embrace that. If they think it's just petty bickering among politicians, they won't. What I'm doing is the former. But I have to be careful that they don't see it as the latter."
Because of the quirkiness of the Iowa caucuses, Edwards doesn't want to anger supporters of the second-tier candidates. When Iowans caucus, supporters of candidates who receive less than 15 percent of the vote must find another candidate to back on a second ballot.
Edwards hopes that he'll be their second choice.
There's a perception left over from the 2004 campaign that negative campaigning can hurt a candidate. The conventional wisdom was that Edwards and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts indirectly benefited in Iowa from the attacks that candidates Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt made against each other.
But David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said that such lessons are overdrawn.
"With seven weeks to go," Redlawsk said, "it's essentially time to ramp it up. There is the belief that Iowans are especially negative about negativity. I don't think that is especially true. The kind of efforts that Edwards and Obama are trying to do is what anyone challenging a front-runner must do.
"What will matter will be the tone of the distinctions. If the tone is on policy and what is good for the country, what direction we are going in, voters will not respond negatively."
(Christensen is a staff writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)