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Clinton versus Obama: Is there any difference?

Are there differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on significant issues? If they aren’t, would an Obama-Clinton Democratic presidential contest largely be determined by intangibles: image, charisma, and personality?
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., listens to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Washington last July.Evan Vucci / AP file
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Right now the two most prominent names in speculation about the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination are Illinois senator and best-selling author Barack Obama, and New York senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton.

The chatter about Obama grew more excited this week as he announced that he'll make his first visit to New Hampshire on Dec. 10 to appear at state party event.  And a “Draft Obama” web site was launched on Wednesday.

Are there differences between Obama and Clinton on significant issues?

And if they aren’t, would an Obama-Clinton contest largely be determined by intangibles: image, charisma, and personality?

(Of course, other Democrats, such as 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, may seek the nomination.)

A look at the votes Obama and Clinton have cast since Obama took office in January of 2005 shows a remarkable concurrence.

Both Obama and Clinton voted against confirming Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Both would have supported a filibuster to block a confirmation vote on Alito, if Democratic leaders had tried to mount one.

Each voted against an amendment to this year’s Senate immigration bill that would have denied legal status to those who had entered the United States illegally.

No Obama vote on war in Iraq
Both senators have voiced criticism of the way President Bush has conducted operations in Iraq.

Yet when they were given the chance to enact Sen. Russ Feingold’s measure ordering Bush to withdraw most U.S. troops by July 1, 2007, both Clinton and Obama voted "no."

Obama didn’t take a seat in the Senate until 2005, so he didn’t vote on the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq.

Clinton did vote for that resolution, as did 28 other Senate Democrats.

Obama and Clinton have disagreed on a few issues since the beginning of 2005, such as a mandate forcing automakers to achieve 40 mile-per-gallon average fuel economy by the year 2017.

Obama voted for that mandate, Clinton against it, and the Senate rejected it on a vote of 67 to 28.

On Congressional Quarterly’s tally of how often senators support Bush’s positions on issues coming before the Senate, in 2005 Clinton earned a 31 out of 100 rating (with 100 meaning totally supportive of Bush) and Obama got a 33.

On the National Journal scale of liberal to conservative positions, again based on roll call votes in 2005, Obama rated an 82.5 (meaning he was more liberal than 82.5 percent of his Senate colleagues) and Clinton a 79.8.

Ideological peas in a pod?
On most issues Obama and Clinton have voted in tandem. So if they are almost two peas in a pod, why prefer one to the other?

One useful dividing line, say some Democrats, is the Iraq war.

“Sen. Obama opposed the war from its very outset, which will be a very popular position in New Hampshire in '08. Just look at Carol Shea-Porter's truly unexpected upset over Rep. Jeb Bradley in the New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District,” said Garth Corriveau, a Democratic activist and Manchester, N.H. attorney.

The opinions of New Hampshire Democrats matter greatly since New Hampshire is the first primary state and often — as in 1992, 2000, and 2004 — its voters decide who the Democratic nominee will be.

“Although Sen. Clinton has been a critic of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war, she has not issued a John Edwards-esque mea culpa for supporting the invasion,” Corriveau said.

But he said the biggest difference between the two “appears to be judgment versus experience: Sen. Obama's media blitz portrays him as the candidate for change — youthful and charismatic — he even took a page from the Clinton handbook using ‘Hope’ in his book title. Sen. Clinton is an accomplished senator, master political tactician and invaluable asset to the party.”

Not determined by charisma
Corriveau said an Obama-Clinton contest won’t be determined by charisma or persona.

“New Hampshire loves the Clintons and is intrigued by Obama, but our voters are too savvy to vote for personalities,” he said. “If Clinton and Obama move to the front of the pack it will be because Clinton promises us better days and centrist policies, while Obama advocates a new way forward, devoid of hyper-partisanship and red versus blue states.”

Another New Hampshire Democrat, former congressional candidate Mary Rauh, said, “We’re longing for leadership.” In her view both Obama and Clinton, since “they’re both fairly new in the Senate,” haven’t necessarily had opportunities to show leadership.

But she added “It seems to me Obama’s ability to communicate says potentially there’s a leader there.”

She said it is Obama’s attractiveness and eloquence that causes some people concern. “That’s what some people worry a bit about — the glamour rather than the substance.”

But she said her husband had read Obama’s new book and vouched for his substance and she too looks forward to reading it.

Rauh met Sen. Clinton in her state back in 1992 when Bill Clinton was running for president. “She was a bright and dynamic woman, very engaging,” Rauh recalled. “I’ll be interested to see her here in action against Obama.”

A view from Iowa
New Hampshire’s primary will be preceded by a week or so by Iowa’s caucuses.

Iowa Democratic activist Ann Fitzgibbons said that without examining the two senators’ voting records, “I had assumed they were pretty close” in how they voted. “To me, they are both not far, far Left. They are mid-to-left. Who would I rather have as a candidate? Probably Obama.”

Fitzgibbons explained that while she admired Clinton, “it’s just the divisiveness of her” that causes her to say “I’d like to see her not run.”

“Every Democrat I talk to — and even independents — say they really have read a lot about Obama. People are pretty excited about him,” said Fitzgibbons, who works in Spencer, Iowa, in the predominantly Republican northwest part of the state.

The essential question, Fitzgibbons said, is “Who can win? Who can bring in more votes? Who is less divisive? I think Clinton is too divisive. It comes down to: who can bring the party together and bring in independents?”

Like Corriveau, Democratic strategist David Sirota, who worked on Ned Lamont’s campaign against Sen. Joe Lieberman, sees Iraq as a dividing line.

“Obama campaigned against the Iraq War when he ran for the Senate, while Sen. Clinton pushed the war,” Sirota said.

“Obama, until recently, went largely silent on the war once he got into the Senate, but his recent declaration on the war suggests he still may be able to use the issue to differentiate himself” from Clinton.

Neither Obama nor Clinton
Sirota added that “Obama and Clinton are very similar, not only in votes, but in their rhetorical approaches. Neither of them has shown a desire to spend their significant political capital taking risks to, for instance, confront entrenched power or highlight taboo issues like economic inequality.”

“Even with both of them running, there will be a very real opening for an outsider candidacy,” he argued.

In Sirota’s view, “only two potential candidates have spent any of their political capital on something other than themselves, that is, on an actual cause/issue: Al Gore and John Edwards. I fully expect the Democratic primary to be defined by a fight between one of the conviction candidates like a Gore or Edwards (or someone else who emerges) and one of the establishment candidates like an Obama or Clinton.”