T'was the Night Before Caucus
I began my journey to the Hawkeye this morning in Chicago, traveling four hours west to my present location, driving much of the way along I-88, otherwise known as the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. I passed the 40th president's birthplace and boyhood home en route, and no sooner had I entered Iowa when I came across West Branch, the home of Herbert Hoover. The 32nd president never experienced the Iowa caucuses, for he was nominated during a time period when party conventions controlled the nominating process. Reagan, on the other hand, did campaign in Iowa in 1980 and lost to his eventual running mate, George H. Bush.
You might remember that Bush claimed the "Big Mo" afterward, but lost to Reagan in New Hampshire and was resigned to second-tier status until 1988 when he lost Iowa, but won the nomination. The moral of the story here is that a win in Iowa is not critical, but a top-three finish has been pivotal. Conventional wisdom suggests that there are three tickets out of Iowa: first class, coach, and home. A win equates with first class and frontrunner status, a place or show coach to New Hampshire, and fourth or worse is an indication that it may be wise to fold the tent.
On the eve of the caucus, I sought out as many candidates circling through the area today as possible, and found Cedar Rapids ripe for the picking. First up was the former first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spoke at Kirkland Community College, with daughter Chelsea and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack in tow. Hillary boasted an impressive lunch hour turnout, probably about 300 or so in the school's rec center. The press pool was extensive, and they rode together on a single bus, following the candidate as she made her final lap across the state. Secret Service had a formidable presence themselves.
Hillary spoke extensively about her experience with the Children's Defense Fund, as First Lady of both Arkansas and the U.S., and her last seven years in the Senate. Without mentioning Sen. Barack Obama by name, she contrasted her record of enacting change with his "empty" rhetoric. Her microphone worked only intermittently, but she rose to the challenge with her strong voice resonating throughout the room.
The crowd was predominantly female and also trended older. She did boast an impressive cadre of younger staffers and volunteers, most of them once again women.
Next up was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at an airplane hanger at Eastern Iowa Airport. Mitt was introduced by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and followed with a brief speech where he thanked Iowans for their support over the past year on the campaign trail and encouraged them to caucus on his behalf tomorrow night. Attendance was sparse, especially if members of the press were excluded, but Mitt was clearly targeting the state's media markets via jet jumps.
I then headed to downtown Cedar Rapids at the Veteran's Coliseum, where Barack Obama staged an impressive rally with more than 1,000 people in attendance, along with a press pool equal in size or perhaps larger than that of the former first lady. The facility was laden with Obama staffers and volunteers. Like Clinton's supporters, the latter were decidedly young, but Obama had an equal number of males and also boasted significant racial diversity. Ditto for the crowd. It had a mix of young and old, racial diversity, and from surface appearance, a variety of economic backgrounds.
True to form, the Obama rally felt more like a religious revival than a political event. Introduced by Congressman David Loebsack, the crowd was further stimulated by a local talk show host. Obama signs of three varieties were liberally distributed to the crowd closest to the stage, and his trademark logo and slogan ("Fired up"..."Ready to Go") projected on the walls and ceilings. Obama didn't disappoint an energetic crowd with a 45-minute speech where he made both a positive and negative case for change. He reiterated his life experiences as community organizer, lawyer, state legislator, and U.S. Senator, attempting to undermine Clinton's experience mantle while retaining his outsider status.
Obama used repetition, "shout-outs" to specific crowd members, and a casual give and take to create an impressive foil with Clinton. Where Hillary is on message and sticks to her talking points, Obama is the agent of change, more preacher than stump speaker, leading a movement of uncertain political consequences.
After dinner, I squeezed in one final rally, this one for Sen. Joe Biden at the Roundhouse adjacent to the Cedar River. Biden was introduced by a number of local officials as the seasoned senator has attracted the support of some 14 state legislators. A strong crowd of 300 packed the community center, but noticeably missing was even a single member of the media establishment. Biden made a passionate speech dismissing Clinton's experience and Obama's change arguments in kind, saying he wins outright on the first count and has a record of achieving the latter during his last 35 years in the Senate.
Biden was arguably the best speaker I encountered today, working the crowd throughout, and raising his voice to cement key points. He dismissed a press pool that has apparently written off his candidacy, suggesting that he has encountered similar strong showings of supporters as he makes his final sprint across the state.
His crowd was probably the oldest of the four I encountered today, with an even gender distribution, but almost uniformly white. One might be tempted to dismiss the Delaware Senator on this count, but remember that a majority of caucus goers are older than 55, and the state is 97% white.
After a long day of traveling, stump speeches, radio and television commercials, with C-SPAN coverage of the candidates' closing arguments currently on in the background, you might ask if my impression of the race on the ground has changed. I answer with a resounding no! I experienced what I had been reading about and watching on TV for more than a year: Hillary's textbook campaign, Mitt's robotic powerpoint presentation, Obama's historic candidacy of change, and Biden's impressive, yet too-often ignored campaign of competence and experience.
I'll be back tomorrow morning after digesting the morning papers and latest polls. The sun will rise and set once more before Iowa voters head to their local precincts, and a toss-up looms for candidates of both parties. The suspense is powerful here in a state of snow-covered snowfields, as the roots of democracy are stronger than the sub-zero winds howling across the landscape. Ready or not, the rhetoric ends tomorrow as the campaigns at long last yield to voters.