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Obama's tricky thin line

August 20, 2007 |  7:58 pm

Running for president is a difficult and very tricky business, as it should be. It is particularly difficult for someone who claims to represent a fresh new political page, like Barack Obama. Back in June he had to publicly apologize for a campaign memo that was intentionally leaked to attack Hillary Clinton's ties to the Indian-American community.

It's a real dilemma for Obama. How do you attract attention and support in the conflict-driven media and political arena without the kinds of conflict, divisive rhetoric and criticism of opponents that attract that attention and support, but you're not supposed to do because you represent a new page? Especially when to many political observers you seem to have plateaued in public support in several states a good distance behind the strong front-runner Hillary Clinton?

In recent weeks we've seen Obama take a more aggressive stand versus his Democratic opponents in a number of areas. A couple of recent incidents on Obama's campaign trail are revealing. Last Friday night at a Democratic fund-raiser dinner in Clear Lake, Iowa, with The Times' Peter Nicholas listening in, Obama added a new wrinkle to his rhetorical repertoire.

Although he proudly touts himself as a "hope-peddler," Obama took on the president's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, who had announced his resignation earlier in the week. Now, Rove is an easy target for Democrats, the political devil incarnate who has helped to engineer so many stinging Democratic defeats over the years including Ann Richards, Al Gore and John Kerry. But Obama attacked Rove in an uncharacteristically sarcastic manner.

"We all, I know, shed a tear when Karl Rove left," Obama said, "We thought, 'Golly, how are we going to manage now that Karl's not in there making great decisions and helping unify the country?'" Is this a sign of a new edgier side to the Illinois senator? Where's the unifier with the new attitude?

Then, according to the Associated Press, Obama was recently speaking at the kind of small intimate living room event that spoiled New Hampshire voters relish and expect candidates to indulge in before their first primary. There were eight people present as Obama described himself as an outsider both to the world of Washington and politics as usual.

One of the attendees was Maggie North, who voted for Howard Dean in 2004. "You can be...

it," she told Obama. "But you've got to stop--excuse me for being blunt--you've got to stop getting involved in the way people are fighting each other, chewing you up a little more."

Obama tried to defend himself. "That's what you do when you run for president," he said. "Some of that's OK, it thickens your skin...Putting you through the paces like that is part of the hazing that's required for the job."

But North, like likely a number of other Obama supporters who have been attracted by his initial differentness, remained unconvinced. "What happens when you engage in that," she said, "is you become like everybody else."

Small moments at small events. But that's likely to remain a tricky problem for Obama as long as he lasts. How much of his refreshing newness can the first-term senator risk being smudged off over time by the need to gain more attention and traction through the old proven divisive ways?

--Andrew Malcolm