Clinton, Iowa -- Barack Obama unveiled his closing act in the run-up to the January 3 caucuses and it's a heady mix of soaring promises, inspirational vision and a tightly targeted, one-two attack on his closest rivals, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
"This is a defining moment," the Illinois senator told an enthusiastic audience of 300 in the Washington Middle School gym in this eastern Iowa river town late Friday afternoon. "We cannot wait to fix our schools, we cannot wait to stop climate change, we cannot wait to get universal health care... and we cannot wait to bring this war in Iraq to an end."
While Obama sounded his now standard themes of "hope" and "change you can believe in," he simultaneously sharpened his direct attacks on Clinton and Edwards, reverting to a defiant tone bordering on anger.
Obama's newly focused closing argument comes as he, and the other major candidates, are frenetically leap-frogging across the state, making five, six or more stump appearances a day. All three top candidates are running dead heats in most polls.
"The real gamble, the risk, the real risk in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same players and expecting a different result," Obama said in a direct riposte to the Clinton campaign. Two weeks ago Bill Clinton warned a national TV audience that nominating Obama would be a "roll of the dice" on America's future.
Obama continued his thinly veiled assault on Hillary Clinton, sarcastically deriding her repeated campaign claim that her experience trumps his message of change. "We don't need someone to work the system better because the system doesn't work for us," Obama said to a swell of applause. "We don't need someone who says, ' I know how to work the game,' because the game plan isn't working."
Rival John Edwards also came under a withering attack from Obama. "Some people say, 'Well, Obama talks a good game, but he's not angry enough, he's too conciliatory,'" he said, referring to a new stump speech by Edwards claiming the powerful must be confronted and not conciliated. "I don't need lectures about how to bring about change because I've spent my life bringing about change," Obama said in response to his own rhetorical query. "I turned down the big jobs to do community organizing in Chicago. I turned down the big money law firms to be a civil rights lawyer. I took on the lobbyists in the state legislature in Illinois."
"We don't need more heat in Washington," he added. "We need more light."
In these final six days of the Iowa campaign none of the major candidates are mentioning each other by name but are instead speaking in near-transparent code about each other. They are finely honing their messages, straining to starkly underscore their differences with each other. John Edwards has ratcheted up his economic populism with a new stump speech denouncing what he called "the profiteers" dominating America. Clinton has been doubling-down on her experience card. And now Obama has stiffened his tone, claiming to be the only reliable agent of change.
But Obama also took pains to burnish his credentials as a potentially strong commander-in-chief. Former Air Force General Tony McPeak warmed up the crowd saying that Obama possessed all the key qualities of a top military leader: reliability, authenticity, good judgment and intelligence.
"We've been conducing a colossal experiment for the last six years to see if it matters very much if the guy in the White House isn't that smart," McPeak said to whoops of laughter.. "And," he said, "the results are in."