Democrat Barack Obama declared that "change can't just be a slogan" as he voiced admiration for former President Clinton, while arguing that voters are looking for a new face that moves past the bitter wrangling of past campaigns.
"I think I'm in a position to bring about the changes that people want," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Obama said the dominant theme he is hearing from voters is weariness with Washington-style wrangling.
The "Bill" factor
As Obama was speaking, the former president was stumping across Iowa on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. A former president on the campaign trail was getting heavy attention, and the Clintons were campaigning with a slogan arguing they were best prepared to bring change to the country.
On Tuesday Bill Clinton said: "Yesterday's news was pretty good," referring to his time in office and taking a jab at critics who call the former first couple old news.
Obama said he thinks voters are looking to turn the page and not return to an earlier era.
"I admire Bill Clinton, I think he did a lot of fine things as president and he's a terrific political strategist," the Illinois senator said. "What we're more interested in is in looking forward, not looking backward. I think the American people feel the same way. They are looking for a way to break out of the harsh partisanship and the old arguments and solve problems."
In the interview, Obama said his campaign is based on change and his history shows he can be an agent of change.
"Change can't just be a slogan," Obama said. "Change has to mean that we're not doing the same old thing that we've been doing."
Obama's delicate handling of the former president could be described as wielding a club using a velvet glove, treating a popular political figure with great deference while making clear he views himself as the figure of the future.
Obama's critics argue he lacks experience, and Hillary Clinton's backers point to her eight years in the White House and her tenure in the Senate as evidence she's qualified to be president. Obama dismissed experience that's rooted in Washington.
"What I know is the kind of experience I have outside of Washington as a community organizer working with families that are struggling, as a constitutional law professor, as a state legislator dealing with the very issues that affect people, people find that experience at least as relevant, maybe more relevant, than experience in Washington."
In the interview, Obama declined to criticize Clinton directly, however.
"Hillary Clinton is a capable person and an experienced person and she's got a good track record as a senator from New York," said Obama, who said his history is one of pushing for change, not building a resume.
"I would not be in this race if I didn't think I had the capacity to bridge divisions along partisan lines, racial lines, religious lines, that was unequaled in the field," he said.
Obama cemented his status in the top tier of the Democratic field last weekend when he reported record fundraising of more than $32 million from April through June. But he declined in the interview to label the race a two-person battle with Clinton.
"What I'm confident about is, we're going to be able to run a very competitive campaign, we've got the resources to do it, we've got the volunteer base to do it, and we've got the right message," he said.
Obama said the attention given his fundraising prowess overshadows the organizational strength he's developed.
"Obviously it's going to be hard-fought race," said Obama. "It's not going to be just one or two candidates who are competitive. I think you still have a very strong field and it's still very early."
Obama said that more important than the amount of money he raised was the 250,000-strong donor base that he's built.
"We've got the kind of support that can be sustained over a long period of time," said Obama. "We are a change-based campaign, we are a grassroots based campaign. That kind of energy and excitement on the ground, I think that translates into votes in what I think could be a close race."
Obama was joined by his wife, Michelle, and two small children on the campaign trail, moving through a long series of colorful Independence Day events, standing on front porches and munching barbecue.
"This is the family weekend for us," Mrs. Obama said, as the family loaded up into a recreational vehicle heading for another campaign stop. "Family is first."
In a brief meeting with reporters, Obama dismissed comments earlier in the day by President Bush, who warned against moving quickly to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.
"The president has stubbornly denied the facts on the ground there for a long time," said Obama. "That's not what that the American people are looking for."