US Republicans start to smell blood,the Clinton machine is stripping away her adversary's lustre.
"Hillary's been power-hungry since she was at college"
He was once billed as Obambi, the doe-eyed ingénu wandering innocently into the dark forest of an election, woefully unprepared for the dangers that lurked there. But in the old steamboat stop of Sioux City, Iowa, this week, an altogether more ferocious animal stalked its prey.
Barack Obama jabbed the air and waved his hand dismissively as he branded his prey a creature of the establishment who had "been in Washington too long". This crony of "corporate lobbyists" was in denial about America being "less safe" than before 9/11 and had to be brought to book for the "disaster" in Iraq.
Like a boxer with her opponent trapped in the corner of the ring, she has been pummelling Obama this week for being naïve and inexperienced on foreign policy. And the punches are hitting home.
Slowly but surely, the Clinton machine is stripping away her adversary's lustre. Obama joked in Sioux City that he is accused of being a "hopemonger". But that reputation is receding as Clinton responds to his attacks on her by asking with mock dismay: "Whatever happened to the politics of hope?"
In Sioux Falls, Democrats echoed the criticisms of the candidate they did not like as often as they sang the praises of the ones they did. "Hillary's been power-hungry since she was at college," said Martie Ebner, an Obama backer. Darrell Strong, 85, a retired railroad worker, questioned whether Obama could handle the Middle East. "This isn't kindergarten," he pointed out.
All this is giving hope to Republican strategists, whose underlying assumption since their mid-term drubbing has been that they have little chance of winning next November. Recognising that the odds are stacked against them, the Grand Old Party hopefuls are making a decent stab at improving their chances. Rather than attacking each other, the Republicans have been turning their fire against Obama and Clinton. When invited to attack the social stances of Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani during last weekend's Iowa debate, Mitt Romney declined to shoot for the open goal. "I'd rather let him speak for himself," he said.
To the dismay of some Democrats in the high school gym, however, the Illinois senator's quarry was not George W. Bush, who escaped almost scot free. His stump speech was all about, as Obama himself put it, his "little argument with Hillary Clinton". In trying to stop the Hillzilla juggernaut, Obama is making a powerful case for why she should never be president. Painting the former First Lady as the ultimate Washington insider is a message that resonates in a country in which Congress is every bit as unpopular as Bush.
One of the most puzzling moments of an already extraordinary campaign came last week when Clinton suggested that lobbyists represent "real Americans". For a famously disciplined campaigner, it was a foolish mistake to champion the profession most associated with corruption and a poisoned body politic in Washington.