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Obama chats with Leno, leaves the tough line till last

October 17, 2007 |  8:46 pm

Well, the newer, tougher-talking Barack Obama came out smooth and friendly tonight on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." No campaign attacks, no flagrant charges to jar sleepy Americans preparing for bed. So you can hit the sack early now and check the TiVo come morning.

Chatting with the jut-jawed Leno has become a presidential campaign requirement. He's already had John McCain on and Bill Richardson and Elizabeth and John Edwards and Fred Thompson (twice, but then he's from an NBC show, "Law & Order").

Jay is not Tim Russert, a Sunday morning D.C.-in-your-face kind of host for people who didn't go to church. Jay was gentle with his guest tonight, offering up soft pitches like, "I have to ask you about your family. Dick Cheney, you and he are eighth cousins."

"Not kissing cousins," replied Obama. (Audience laughter.) He said you always hope your relatives are great kings or queens.

Jay wanted to know if Obama's popularity had dropped since yesterday, when the world learned he was related to a Republican. "The truth is," the senator replied, "I am OK with it. You know, now I don't want to be invited to the family hunting party." (More laughter.) Gee, do you think that one was scripted too?

Jay asked about the Bush administration, which frustrates Obama because it's "all about military force, has not done the diplomatic work." Obama said he had found Iowa voters well-informed; they even...

know about Burma. He also found people "want to feel as if we can come together, that we're not just a collection of red states and blue states. We can come together and actually solve big problems like healthcare and energy." Which is an amazing coincidence because that's an Obama campaign theme.

He said he's always been the underdog but that his campaign has raised more money from small-amount donors than all the other Democratic candidates combined. He admitted that, yes, as his wife, Michelle, has alleged, he has been known to leave the occasional sock tossed on the floor and a tie on the doorknob, but he pleaded innocent to leaving underwear there.

"I am not a perfect man," he said. "And I will not be a perfect president. But what I can guarantee is that I will always tell people what I think." He pointed out that unlike some candidates, "When I talk about global warming, I don't give a speech to an environmental group. I go to Detroit and I talk to the automakers and the room gets really quiet."

Obama admitted that, yes, now that it was autumn and voters were paying closer attention, he was drawing more distinctions with his opponents "to make sure that people understand the differences and the choices that we're making. We're choosing the next leader of the free world. It's not city council."

Jay asked about going up against Hillary and Bill Clinton. "If there's a debate between Michelle and Bill," Obama said, "you know, I'm putting my money on my girl."

"You would leave your wife alone with Bill Clinton, would you?" (Knowing audience laughter.) "You want to rethink that?"

"Michelle can handle herself." (More laughter.)

Probably the toughest line of the night, which was actually uttered in the afternoon, came when Leno asked Obama about Sen. Clinton's consistent large lead in the polls. "Hillary," he said, "is not the first politician in Washington to declare mission accomplished a little too soon." Now, that line came across as straight and truly felt.

-- Andrew Malcolm