Des Moines, Iowa
Chasing around Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, I traveled today from Davenport to Eldridge to Knoxville and finally back to Des Moines. And while it was only a couple hundred miles mostly along I-80, it might as well have been hopping from one world to another.
Retail ground campaigns like those run in Iowa are not just bubbles, but veritable self-contained ecospheres. Candidate events are packed with mostly self-selecting audiences and trying to venture a guess as to who's ahead and who's not, who's got the Big Mo or the Big Slow, simply by sizing up campaign rallies is a fool's errand.
During the 2004 campaign, for example, even as Howard Dean was collapsing in the polls, his closing Iowa rallies were huge, electric events. John Kerry was in ascension but his meet-and-greets were low key, sometimes even dour and funereal. Only among Edwards' folks could you feel something like authentic momentum and, indeed, he came from nowhere to almost win.
Watching Edwards this afternoon and evening, as he spoke to cheering overflow crowds, he was surely trying to replicate his last-week boom of '04. "I've felt this energy, this excitement, this momentum before and it's real. It's no accident," he said to a Des Moines audience of more than a 1000 roaring supporters a few hours ago.
Obama said very much the same thing yesterday to a jazzed up crowed and will do so again Sunday night when he's scheduled to hold a big rally in Des Moines.
And this morning, hundreds showed up an hour or so in advance to pack a rural community meeting room for Hillary Clinton.
But, again, beware of making any definitive judgments based on crowd size or mood. Go to an Edwards event and you'd think most Democrats were t-shirted steelworkers. At an Obama rally it seems the whole world is a university. And Hillary's world -at least here in Iowa-- seems composed mostly of lawyers and schoolteachers, retired schoolteachers.
At the Edwards and Obama events the room brims with the dreamers and doers who want to change the world, or at least part of it. And that's at whom the two candidates aim their talks. And they're doing it extremely well in these final days. Inside the Hillary bubble, it's a different crew. Here are the folks who want mostly to change who is in the White House and don't seem to invest that much in politics itself. Oprah may have endorsed Barack Obama, but it's Hillary who speaks directly to her audience: the more apolitical, the less ideological.
Three candidates. Two different worlds.
Sunday I will spend with the steelworkers as they go out canvassing for Edwards. Their goal: to do some last-minute changing of minds, if not of the world itself.
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It was an unusually agitated, almost angry, Barack Obama that I saw earlier this evening in the ironically named river town of Clinton.
And it was certainly Clinton -- and Edwards-- that Obama had on his mind as he stepped-up his message and his normally cool tone.
You can more or less or forget about everything that's happened in the various campaigns as we now have a genuine week-long fight to the mat on our hands.
Virtually every major poll now shows an authentic, not a media-created, dead heat among Clinton-Obama-Edwards on our hands. Or should we say Edwards-Obama-Clinton? Some of those polls have the fiery former North Carolina senator out ahead by a nose, or two. Could Edwards actually win Iowa? Might the media have gone terribly wrong these past months casting the Democratic battle as strictly a Clinton-Obama match-up?
It's far from inconceivable. Edwards has been working this state like a turbo-charged wringer since just about the day after he missed winning by a few points in 2004. Even his foes agree that he has built up a formidable rural organization. And as his adviser "Mudcat" Saunders told me earlier this morning: "To say Iowa is rural is to say water is wet."
The battle positions have, meanwhile, hardened. Edwards has deepened his economic populist message, sounding at times more like a European social democrat than an American Dixiecrat. Obama has taken off the gloves and is furiously punching back -almost sarcastically--at both Edwards and Clinton. Obama and Edwards are locked now in a death grip for the mantle of change in what, it seems, could be an historic "change election."
Hillary, for her part, has entrenched herself on the Establishment side, so deeply dug in that she has announced she will no longer take any questions during the rest of her Iowa campaign events.
Never before in recent history has a Democratic presidential race turned so invigorating. No one can sanely claim that this time around there aren't some real and even stark choices to be made among those who actually have a chance to win. The question will, indeed, come down to whether Democrats opt for change or for re-assurance. And if it is the former, which agent of change?
I'll be spending Saturday morning with Hillary. The afternoon and evening with Edwards. More to come.
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I'm sitting in the gym at the Washington Middle School here in the eastern Iowa town of Clinton waiting for Barack Obama, who's running an hour late, to show up for one of his half-dozen events he's scheduled for today. I've been in Iowa less than 18 hours and have already logged more than 350 miles and driven through two snowstorms to catch three separate campaign events - and I'm not complaining.
Say what you will about the undemocratic, unrepresentative nature of the Hawkeye State caucuses, but they beat the hell out of just about every other undemocratic, unrepresentative aspect of American electoral politics.
Here's the bottom line: Spend any amount of time in this extraordinary form of retail politicking and you can't help but conclude that every cliché about the collective wisdom of the American electorate is actually true. If we could agree on one basic takeaway from this whole process, it should be that we outright ban all TV political advertising and insist that the Iowa model be followed in every state of the union--no matter its size.
Take, for example, the Joe Biden event I attended last night in Council Bluffs, about ten minutes after I drove out of the Omaha airport. At least 150, maybe 200 people gathered in an Elks Lodge, during the dinner hour, on a week night with the thermometer reading 18 degrees to hear...Joe Biden! And it was vintage Biden. He talked and talked and talked some more, often taking 10 minutes to answer one question. His brother, Jim, three times threatened to literally cut the microphone cord. And three times Biden said, wait, wait, just a few more questions.
An ego trip? For sure. But much more than that. Yes, there was the predictable question about ethanol from the rural crowd. But there was a cascade of queries about foreign policy, Biden's forte. Russia and Putin? The Israelis and the Palestinians? Should we talk to Syria? Explain that Biden Plan for Iraq, will'ya?
This from guys in jeans with John Deere caps and from their wives clutching plastic bags from Target. Biden, of course, was only too happy to accommodate. And on several occasions he prefaced his remarks by apologizing for the long-winded and complicated answer he was about to give.
This went on for two hours and came to an end only when Brother Jim had to literally drag the candidate to a waiting car. At no point did the audience grow restless or bored. After each answer , five or six more hands shot up. The interest was avid and, in fact, Biden's biggest applause line of the night had nothing to do with the usual sort of pandering, bur rather when he vowed that in a Biden administration he would outlaw all forms of torture.
The whole thing was rather restorative - a word you usually don't find in any sentence with the word Biden in it. But it was. And it was a stark reminder how the process, and almost everyone in it, from the candidates to the consultants to the media managers insult and underestimate the intelligence of the American voter. Good for Biden.
Obama's bus just arrived. So more later.