Obama says he's going to pick his political battles

WASHINGTON - As I sit across from Barack Obama in his Senate office, I feel like Ingrid Bergman in "The Bells of St. Mary's," when she plays a nun who teaches a schoolboy who's being bullied how to box.

I'm just not certain, having watched the fresh-faced senator shy away from fighting with the feral Hillary over her Hollywood turf, that he understands that a campaign is inherently a conflict.

The Democrats lost the last two excruciatingly close elections because Al Gore and John Kerry did not fight fiercely and cleverly enough.

After David Geffen made critical comments about Hillary, she seized the chance to play Godzilla stomping on Obambi.

As a woman, she clearly feels she must be aggressive in showing she can "deck" opponents, as she put it - whether it's Saddam with her war resolution vote or Senator Obama when he encroaches on areas that she and Bill had presumed were wrapped up, like Hollywood and now the black vote.

If Hillary is in touch with her masculine side, Barry is in touch with his feminine side.

He turned up his nose at his campaign's sharp response to Hillary and her pinstriped thug, Howard Wolfson. He told The Times' Jeff Zeleny that he had not been engaged in the vituperative exchange because he was traveling on a red-eye flight, getting a haircut and taking his daughters to school.

I ask why he couldn't have managed the donnybrook while he traveled and did errands. Since he's sitting across from me using his BlackBerry, I wonder: "Where was your BlackBerry? Did your aides not ask you how to respond or did you not want to ride herd on them - even just to tell them to ignore Hillary?"

"Look, I came up through politics in Chicago," he says. "When I arrived in Chicago in 1985, I didn't know a single person. Seventeen years later, I was the United States senator and in a position to run for president. So I must know a little something about politics."

Channeling Ingrid, I press on and say: "I know you want to run a high-minded campaign, but do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little. That's how they judge how you'd be with Putin."

"When I get into a tussle," he replies, "I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured. If someone wants to get in an argument with me, let's argue about how we're going to fix the health care system or where we need to go on Iraq."

If campaigns follow the arc of the hero myth.

"What's the demon that I've slain?" he finishes. "You're getting kind of deep on me here. I think that, for me, the story was overcoming a father's absence and reconciling the different strands of my background and coming out whole."

"I love Al Gore," he replies. "He's a smart guy." He said he liked Gore's seriousness on issues he cares deeply about. "This sounds cliched, but this week I had five mothers of folks headed to Iraq cry during rope lines where I was shaking hands and had me hug 'em. This stuff is just not a game. Now that doesn't mean that there's not the basic blocking and tackling of politics. I've got to raise money. I've got to manage my press. We've got to respond rapidly to attacks. But what I don't want to do is get drawn into the sport of it."

Talking about the woman he described at the Beverly Hills fund-raiser as smarter, better-looking and meaner then he is, he grins: "My wife's pretty tough."

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.