Image: Obama
David Lienemann  /  AP
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, speaks with students at Coe College during presidential forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Monday, Oct. 29, 2007.
updated 10/30/2007 12:19:23 PM ET 2007-10-30T16:19:23

As Sen. Barack Obama prepared for Tuesday night’s crucial NBC debate in Philadelphia, his high command back in Chicago was watching a lot of old Clinton videotape — not of Hillary Clinton, but of Bill, and not of Bill as president, but of Bill as a fresh-faced candidate of 46 (which happens to be Obama’s age) in 1991 and 1992.

“You know, I look at Clinton back then, and I find a lot I agree with,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s media adviser. “He said things Barack is saying now.”

As the senator from Illinois searches for a way to derail Hillary without ruining his own good-guy image, perhaps the video offers a shrewd approach: arguing that he, not she, is the true disciple of Clinton’s brand of fresh, bring-us-together politics.

In any case, Obama better figure out something — fast.

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Talking to a friend the other day, Obama stated the obvious about Tuesday night’s debate (9-11 p.m. ET, airing on MSNBC and streaming live on “I’ve got to do something in Philly,” he said. Of course he does. Otherwise it’s Red Sox versus Rockies. But more important, how exactly does he “do something?”

He faces a dilemma. How does he “do something in Philly” without making her the hero-victim?

For one, he has to get the tone just right. Democrats tend to like the Clintons and prefer to keep liking them. Bill is beloved, for the most part. Hillary methodically has smoothed her concertina-wire public persona. Voters who meet her in small groups are pleasantly surprised, even astonished, at how gracious she can be — “captivating” was the word I heard from a recent dinner-party companion. On TV and in ads, her handlers slap a smiley face over her shrill, valedictorian manner.

After chatting with staffers and supporters in various Democratic camps, I have compiled a list of suggestions from the wise persons about what Obama should say tonight:

There are many Obama supporters who think he has been entirely too subtle and that he needs to go straight for the jugular Tuesday night. Axelrod isn’t one of them, and he presumably has some influence. “The Washington people want a steel-cage death match,” he said. “It’s blood lust. But we have our own theory and our own pace. And, by the way, it’s a dead heat in Iowa.”

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