The norms of high-minded commentary suggest that you are never to say the issues are not the issue. But among the top Democratic candidates, the confrontations they are staging around policy questions are designed to use their rather small differences to highlight larger contrasts in experience, temperament and character.
Obama and Clinton have also been skirmishing on Social Security. Obama would lift the cap on the payroll tax, which would increase the burden on those with higher incomes. Clinton has criticized this and wants a bipartisan commission to take responsibility for fixing the program.
On foreign policy, Obama opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, Edwards has cast himself as a born-again anti-warrior, and Clinton has sounded steadily more anti-war as the campaign has progressed. More generally, Obama has stressed the value of negotiation, while Clinton looks more -- choose your word -- tough-minded, hawkish, realistic. Little noticed during last week's debate is that only Clinton and Chris Dodd said plainly that there were times when national security would take precedence over human rights concerns.
Yes, Joe Biden continues to impress on foreign policy in the debates and Bill Richardson could pick up votes on the left as the strongest advocate for withdrawal from Iraq. Dodd has an opening on Iraq too. But where Obama, Clinton and Edwards are concerned, it's doubtful that anyone but a member of the Council on Foreign Relations will vote on the basis of a careful parsing of the candidates' views.
Clinton's strongest asset is that Democrats are certain that she will know her way around the White House, be toughness personified in confronting Republicans, will rarely make a mistake -- in brief, that she can survive walks through minefields.
It's hard for Edwards to break into the competition between these two big narratives, and that's why he has slipped in Iowa, the crucial state for him. Many Democrats love Edwards' populism and the fury he conveys over the status quo. His attacks on Clinton have won him attention. But Edwards will have to find ways of challenging Obama for the votes of those who have doubts about the former first lady.
Yet many Democrats share the concerns these candidates raise about each other, wishing that Clinton was not so burdened by history and that Obama was more battle-tested.
(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.