How Edwards tries to emasculate Obama.

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Dec. 31 2007 2:02 PM

The Nice Slice

How Edwards tries to emasculate Obama.

John Edwards. Click image to expand.
John Edwards

In Waverly, Iowa, a week before the caucuses, John Edwards moved through his standard stump speech about the rapacious corporations that ruin every form of American life. The standing-room-only crowd in the American Veterans hall listened without emotion. Edwards pounded corporations again and again but the crowd clapped only once, politely. Then he mentioned his rival's approach to dealing with those same special interests. "I know Senator Obama gave a speech today," he said, pausing, "and he's a good guy. But I listened to the talk about 'I'm going to give these people a stake ... the insurance companies, drug companies, and oil companies, and I'm going to give them a seat at the table, and I'm going to sit at that table, and I'm going to negotiate, and they're going to voluntarily give their power away.' Well that's not the world that I live in. These people will give their power up when we take their power from them." The line finally stirred the room. The crowd applauded loudly.

Edwards and Barack Obama are engaging each other more forcefully than they have all year, particularly over which can do a better job of ridding Washington of bad-guy special interests. If Edwards gets the better of the matchup, the audience reaction in Waverly might explain why: Voters who care about removing special interests from Washington think it can be done only with a pickax. Ha!

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Edwards has been pitching himself as a fighter for quite some time (as I've written before here and here) but in the final week, he and his campaign are increasingly highlighting a secondary argument: that Obama is too nice to be one, too. Nice is an emasculating epithet that gains additional potency because the heart of Obama's message is about conciliation and bringing people together. "Senator Obama talks a nice talk," said Elizabeth Edwards on the Today Show, "but John is the real warrior in this race." Edwards himself made the point at a typical campaign stop in Vinton, Iowa, last week. "Barack is not angry or confrontational enough to get it done," he said. "He's too nice a guy; he's too conciliatory. He can't bring change about. I do not need lectures about how to bring about change. I have not just talked about change. I've made it happen."

Obama is clearly irked by these attacks. The best way for him to show that he's got the fight—to take on the corporations and the Republicans in the general election—may be to confront Edwards more forcefully. Of course, being confrontational risks marring his conciliatory brand.

Obama's alternate rebuttal is that Washington doesn't need more bomb-throwing of the kind Edwards promises. But that argument has its downside, too: It was the bomb-throwing that got the audience applauding in Waverly.

Watching Obama and Edwards back-to-back, as I have this week, the differences between their closing pitches are stunning. Obama's closing argument has a lot of moving parts. Much of it is rebuttal. He answers Edwards' criticisms, and he answers Hillary Clinton's. This is intellectually honest, but it complicates Obama's overall case. It takes up time and it makes Obama sound defensive. Edwards, on the other hand, has honed his closing down to one lean pitch (like the fine trial lawyer he once was). This is effective in the last days of a campaign, when you have to give your audience one clear rationale for voting for you. It's also good politics because in the run-up to Thursday, the candidates must arm the supporters who will knock on doors and seek to persuade until the last second before the final tally is counted. Edwards has one tight message: fight. And now he has a short message to knock Obama: too nice.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.