CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Sen. Hillary Clinton sharpened her attacks on rival Sen. Barack Obama on Monday, saying the country needs "a doer, not a talker" in the White House and mocking Obama's record in public office.
In a series of points that she'd once left to surrogates to make, Clinton disparaged Obama for his series of "present" votes while serving in the Illinois legislature.
"It's kind of like voting 'maybe,'" Clinton said. "A president can't pick and choose which challenges he or she will face. ... Instead of looking for political cover or taking a pass, we need a president who will take a stand."
Obama voted "present" in 1997 on two bills that would have outlawed the procedure that some call partial-birth abortion and on two 2001 bills related to parental notification of minors seeking abortions. He voted "present" on a 1999 bill that would have made firing a gun on or near school grounds a crime and on a 2001 bill that would have kept strip clubs from opening within 1,000 yards of schools, churches and daycare centers.
Clinton wondered aloud if it made sense to "put America in the hands of someone with little national or international experience who started running for president as soon as he arrived in the United States Senate." Obama was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Clinton first won election in 2000 from New York.
"How did running for president become a qualification to be president?" Clinton asked a few hundred Iowans at the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly and other first-generation rockers played their last show before dying in a nearby plane crash in 1959.
The Obama campaign didn't refute statistics regarding his voting record in Illinois, but noted that his "present" votes on abortion issues were cast with the support of the president of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council.
"Barack Obama doesn't need lectures in political courage from someone who followed George Bush to war in Iraq, gave him the benefit of the doubt on Iran, supported NAFTA and opposed ethanol until she decided to run for president," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a prepared response.
It's the second day in a row that Clinton attacked Obama — or "drew distinctions," as her campaign staff put it — a sign that their tight race in Iowa has intensified with voting a month away, on Jan. 3. On Sunday in Cedar Rapids, Clinton questioned Obama's courage and character.
The new strategy could prove risky.
In 2004 in Iowa, Democratic front-runners Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean destroyed each other in a spate of negative ads and tough rhetoric, and Iowans are famously wary of negative campaigns.
That may be especially true for Clinton, who already has high negatives and fights the perception in some quarters that she's unpleasant and unlikable.
Clinton spokesman Jay Carson called the strategy "tough but respectful. There's a way to do that, and that's what you'll see from her. ... I would be shocked if you saw anything like (the tone of the 2004 campaign) in 2007 and 2008."
Evelyn Crone, an 87-year-old retired farmer, who said she would almost definitely support Clinton, said there was nothing wrong with the campaign's new tone.
"It's alright to have these issues brought up, different opinions," Crone said.
Meanwhile, two new polls released Monday appeared to confirm that the race for supremacy in Iowa is a dead heat. Both showed Clinton slightly leading her chief rivals, Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, with her lead within the polls' statistical error margins.
An AP-Pew poll showed Clinton at 31 percent, Obama at 26 percent and Edwards at 19 percent in Iowa. The poll was of 460 likely Democratic voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.5 percentage points. An Iowa State University poll showed Clinton at 31 percent, Edwards at 24 percent and Obama at 20 percent. Error margin: plus or minus 6 percentage points.
A day earlier, a widely publicized Des Moines Register poll showed Obama with a 3-point lead over Clinton, 28 percent to 25 percent. Edwards was at 23 percent. That poll was of 500 likely Democratic caucus-goers and had an error margin of 4.4 percentage points.