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Holiday cheer gives way to final primary push

After a 48-hour lull for Christmas, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns roared back to life with a barrage of new advertisements, closing campaign arguments and attacks.
/ Source: The New York Times

After a 48-hour lull for Christmas, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns roared back to life on Wednesday with a barrage of new advertisements, closing campaign arguments and more than a few attacks as they girded for the eight days leading to the first vote of 2008 here.

“How was Christmas, good?” said Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, speaking to hundreds of voters gathered in a school gymnasium in Mason City, as he began what his aides said would be a nonstop round of bus-riding across the state. “You know what I got for Christmas? Eight hours’ sleep. It was outstanding.”

That holiday cheer lifted as the day went on and the candidates — mostly in Iowa, but also in New Hampshire and Florida — retook the campaign field anxious about the outcome of a race that, for both sides, appears entirely up in the air.

Mr. Obama sharpened his distinctions with his two main rivals, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Edwards of North Carolina, testimony to just how tight the Democratic race remains in Iowa.

“If they’ve been secretive in the past, they’ll be secretive as president,” Mr. Obama told voters in Mason City. “If they haven’t been all that strong on lobbyists in the past, it doesn’t matter what they say during the campaign, they won’t be that strong about it when they’re president.”

Mrs. Clinton, touching down here later in the day, did not criticize any of her rivals by name, but the subtext was clear as she presented herself as “ready to be president on Day 1.” That suggested a return to what has been her dominant message in the race: that she has more experience than Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards.

“It’s not going to be easy, this job never is; it’s the hardest job in the world,” she said. “On Jan. 20, 2009, someone will raise his or her hand to take the oath of office in front of our Capitol. And then that person will go to the Oval Office. And on the desk in the Oval Office will be a stack of problems.”

Mrs. Clinton, with her husband on stage with her, offered an intense attack on the Bush administration that drew a standing ovation. “We need a balance of power back, because all the power has shifted over to one side, George Bush’s government, of the few, by the few and for the few, the well connected and the wealthy,” she said.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Edwards contrasted himself with his Democratic rivals, saying that he alone had the kind of experience to fight the special interests that have become the target of his campaign-closing speech, as well as his final advertisements.

“You better send someone in there who is ready for the battle,” he said.

Republicans back on the trail
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was in New Hampshire, a state where he had once been confident of victory, fending off Senator John McCain of Arizona, who won in New Hampshire in 2000 and who seems to be gaining strength there again.

Mr. Romney attacked Mr. McCain for his support of legislation that would have allowed some illegal immigrants an opportunity to gain legal status, as well as his opposition to Mr. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001.

“I don’t recall Senator McCain saying he was wrong to say that all illegal aliens should be able to stay here permanently, or that he was wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts,” Mr. Romney said. “I think he was.”

Mr. McCain, asked about Mr. Romney’s remarks after he arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Wednesday, responded: “Voters don’t like this kind of stuff. Voters don’t like these personal attacks and attack ads, and as you know, we’ve stayed away from that kind of stuff.”

If voters had something of a respite from the campaign over the past two days, it surely ended Wednesday. Advertisements shelved for the Christmas holiday were back on the air, notably one by Mike Huckabee, a Republican and the former governor of Arkansas, which presented him as a “Christian leader.” Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards both unveiled new advertisements summarizing their final campaign appeals, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney were planning to follow suit.

The advertisements to date were notable for the extent to which they avoided direct attacks. “Hillary Clinton: A New Beginning” was the tag line on Mrs. Clinton’s. The positive tone was evidence of the complications of running in a multicandidate field where an attack on one candidate could have the effect of driving voters to a third. Aides to all the major campaigns said they had tough attack ads on the ready should they prove necessary in the next few days.

Unusual calendar complicates campaigns
Most of the action was concentrated in Iowa, where both parties will hold their caucuses next Thursday. But, reflecting the strategic complications facing the candidates as they try to deal with the unusual calendar this year, there was activity in other states as well.

Mr. McCain began running a new advertisement in South Carolina heralding his support of the Iraq war. Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York started a three-day trip through Florida in Largo with a single event before a small crowd at an American Legion Post and another explanation of his unorthodox strategy of focusing most of his attention on winning the Jan. 29 primary there; he is not scheduled to go to Iowa or New Hampshire until the weekend.

“By the time we get to Florida on Jan. 29, it’s going to be early enough for Florida to make its own statement, and make a very strong decision that will have an impact going forward,” Mr. Giuliani told a group of reporters.

Mr. Edwards went to New Hampshire as his campaign sought to deal with the concern that he might be perceived as a one-state candidate — Mr. Edwards has devoted the vast majority of his resources to winning Iowa — and therefore that a vote for him in Iowa might be wasted.

Similarly, after pheasant hunting in Iowa, Mr. Huckabee flew to Florida for two days of closed-door fund-raising events intended to finance efforts in the other early primary states.

Advisers to Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama said in interviews that it was increasingly clear that they were competing for many of the same voters in Iowa.

Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Mr. Edwards, said a number of voters were leaning toward Mr. Obama but had doubts about him and were thus receptive to Mr. Edwards.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, disputed that. “I think we may have a broader reach than Edwards,” Mr. Axelrod said. “We’re bringing in a lot of new people.”

Contributing reporting were Julie Bosman in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Michael Cooper in Largo, Fla.; Abby Goodnough in Henniker, N.H.; Patrick Healy in Mount Pleasant, Iowa; David D. Kirkpatrick in Des Moines; Marc Santora in Nashua, N.H.; and Jeff Zeleny in Mason City, Iowa.