WASHINGTON -- Roy Swonger, a volunteer in Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, buttonholed the candidate in a Merrimack, N.H., living room last Tuesday.
"I am looking forward to some more forceful differentiation," Swonger, 43, a software development specialist, told Obama.
"Well, I'm sure now is that time for that to happen," Obama replied.
Indeed. With 65 days until the first-in-the-nation caucus in Iowa, Obama in past weeks has been drawing a sharper contrast with chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Obama has been going after Clinton on her vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist outfit and her dodging giving a direct answer on the future of Social Security.
Just in case this aggressive strategy has not caught the attention of the Clinton campaign, Obama donors and activists like the concerned Swonger, the Illinois senator called in New York Times reporters to underscore his message for a Sunday story.
Obama seems to have been telegraphing the punches he may throw tonight at a Democratic debate in Philadelphia, televised live on MSNBC for two hours starting at 8 p.m. Chicago time.
The senator will demonstrate either how well he is executing his strategy or will fail to deliver on expectations he's been raising himself.
After I asked, David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, said Obama was not signaling his debate game plan. Rather, what is unfolding is an evolving campaign. "We are heading down the final stretch," Axelrod said. Obama is "making the case for the kind of change we need."
Axelrod downplayed the matter of expectations. "You guys," said Axelrod, referring to the political media, "have set the expectations from the beginning. . . . I'm not worried about expectations." Axelrod said there is a parallel universe -- the Washington "punditocracy" who are "into scorekeeping" and the voters "who decide."
There is plenty of reason for optimism in the Obama camp, especially if Obama does well this evening.
A main reason -- speaking of a parallel universe -- is that "there is a big difference between the information voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are receiving compared to voters nationally," said Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com, who is not allied with any candidate.
Obama is running ads in New Hampshire and Iowa and voters there "are experiencing a different campaign and the poll numbers show it. It's that campaign that counts," Blumenthal said.
Polls show Obama is deadlocked with Clinton and Edwards in Iowa and is on the uptick in New Hampshire, even as Clinton retains her overall front-runner status in national and early-state polls. If Obama wins Iowa, the dynamic changes.
A few weeks ago Obama's campaign took their best bundlers -- members of his National Finance Council -- to Des Moines to show off the extensive grass-roots organization designed to deliver Obama supporters to the Jan. 3 caucus. Last week, Axelrod briefed donors during a conference call -- a routine obligation, not because of reports that donors were anxious.
"The notion our donors are panicked, it could not be further from the truth," Axelrod said. "I guarantee you, he is moving up in New Hampshire."
Back in that New Hampshire living room, I asked Swonger what he wanted Obama to do. Said Swonger, "What I would like to see is him be more pointed in his criticisms of other candidates."