Apologies for the delay in a report on tonight’s Obama event. But, after that event there were good conversations to be had with the national reporters covering this fascinating caucus at Centro, the most active bar/restaurant for this year’s caucus.
There was a full house (about 750 folks) at the fourth and final Obama event of the day—a nighttime rally at a middle school gym on the south side of Des Moines with a crowd that was diverse by Iowa standards. One interesting Arkansawyer sighting in the crowd: Pulaski Circuit/County Clerk Pat O’Brien, in Iowa for the week to campaign for Obama. Introduced by fellow Iraq War critic North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, Obama gave the speech that he’s used for the last several days to make the “closing sale” with Iowa voters. The speech simultaneously responds to the critiques of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, attempting to flip his rivals’ charges back on them. In response to Clinton’s charge that Obama lacks the necessary experience for the job, Obama says that it is “experience rooted in lives like yours” rather than Washington experience that matters; the question that voters should ask is not who can “play the game better,” but instead who can “put an end to the game playing in Washington.” Presenting his own soft populist tones that sound much like Bill Clinton rhetoric from the 1992 campaign, Obama answers Edwards’ criticism that he is “too nice” to fight the special interests by saying that “we don’t need more heat; we need more light” in those battles with special interests in Washington.
I have only seen Obama in person once before—at a outdoor rally in Austin, Texas, in the spring with one of his largest crowds of the campaign until the recent Obama/Oprah tour that drew throngs in three states. While the Austin crowd was incredibly high-energy, Obama himself was somewhat low-energy that day suggesting he was not yet up to the strenuousness of nonstop campaigning. Although working from a prepared text, tonight’s Obama was much livelier, showing that he’s now prepared to tackle the marathon of public events that is modern presidential politics.
Most interesting to me in terms of the content of the speech is the way that Obama uses race in appealing for the votes of an overwhelmingly white state. He references his own race by saying that, “of course, he has to have hope” to think that “a black guy named Barack Obama” could be elected president. But, even more interesting, Obama invites the white voters of Iowa to play a role in making electoral history like the white abolitionists of the pre-Civil War era and the white students who came South during the Civil Rights Movement.
Showing how unpredictable things remain on the Democratic side, at one point in the speech, Obama asked the audience how many had never had caucused before and about 40% raised their hands. He then asked how many still had not settled on their candidate for Thursday night; about one-third raised their hands. Everyone agrees that the turnout in this year’s Democratic caucuses will set a record. But, if the increase is only a slight one from 2004, then Edwards is advantaged. A monster turnout favors Obama. A good turnout that doesn’t reach the heights needed Obama favors Clinton. Simply put: No one has any confidence about how this thing is going to turn out.