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Sweet column: Edwards, Obama tangle. Fighter vs pragmatist.

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa –Stumping across the same snow-covered Iowa countryside, Democratic primary rivals Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards clashed over a philosophical divide toward governance: Is it better to have a fighter or a pragmatist in the White House?

The question, being raised by Edwards in Sunday show interviews and in recent days, comes as Obama and Edwards are engaging with each other — not Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus looming.

The Obama and Clinton camps are taking pains not to offend Edwards supporters, whom they will need if a caucus vote goes into a second and subsequent rounds.

Edwards’ team is hoping concerns about Obama’s experience raised in Sunday’s Des Moines Register endorsement for Clinton will drive into their camp voters who were torn between Obama and Edwards.

Obama and Edwards have positioned themselves as the anti-Washington candidates, and in the closing days of the campaign, Edwards in particular has been working to draw out how they are different.

While all the Democrats back universal health coverage, the campaign has centered on how the front-runners would get it done.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Edwards said Obama believes “the way you deal with these powerful entrenched interests is you sit at a table, negotiate with them and somehow a way — somehow or other they’ll compromise away their power. . . . I believe you have to take them on and . . . there’s going to be an epic fight in front of us to be successful.”

At a town hall meeting on Sunday — one of four for Obama, plus church — Obama said Edwards’ approach is not realistic.

“What I also know is that if you don’t listen, then you are not going to get much done, even when you are dealing with a drug or insurance company. . . . We need insurance companies to participate in some way in order to make it work. So you are going to have to listen to ’em,” Obama said.

Obama started the day at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mason City, sitting next to precinct captain Joann Hardy and her family. He talked about his Christian faith — and took part in a church tradition of tossing mittens on a Christmas tree.

He ended it at a school gym here, where he continued to hunt down undecided voters. Said Obama, “My job is to be so dazzling today that I have persuaded at least some of you to caucus for me.”