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On the campaign trail with Clinton, Obama, Edwards — and Bill

Analysis by G.R. Anderson Jr. | Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008
With the caucuses in a dead heat in Iowa, the fate of the three leading Democrats may be in the hands of a fourth player: Bill Clinton.

Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton is joined by daughter Chelsea and husband Bill Clinton at a New Year’s Eve campaign stop in Des Moines.

CLEAR LAKE, IOWA — Love him or loathe him, Bill Clinton is a transfixing public speaker. The former president has the uncanny ability to mix the folksy with the wonky, commanding respect while doling out a charming humility.

And make no mistake: Clinton is definitely still in American politics. In the final weeks of the Iowa campaign, the Hillary Clinton campaign has unleashed Bill throughout the Hawkeye State. His schedule often boasts as many stops as other candidates who are actually running for office. It is a shrewd tactic.

“It allows us to cover twice as much ground as anyone else,” said Jerry Crawford, a lawyer from Des Moines who has worked on numerous Iowa campaigns for Democrats and this year is the Midwest co-chair of the Clinton campaign. “And I see that it works. I see the expressions and rapt attention of people when he speaks.”

Logistically, the double-shot of Clinton magic gracing the state — including former first daughter Chelsea — makes sense. There are 17 candidates seeking a showing in Iowa, and by this time even the most ardent caucus-goers likely have stump fatigue. Hillary Clinton, a presumptive front-runner in the eyes of many for nearly a year, finds herself in a virtual tie with John Edwards and Barack Obama in the most wide-open caucus in any recent memory.

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“We’ve never seen so many candidates,” said Jon Ericson, a former provost and professor at Drake University in Des Moines who has caucused for Democrats for 40 years. “People have no clue who to pick. People can switch overnight. There are not a lot of true believers.”

In the art of campaigning, however, the Clintons are essentially the Beatles — the best no matter who else may rise up the charts — and Bill’s presence on the campaign trail allows him to play a sunny McCartney to Hillary’s more visceral Lennon. And it pulls off the nifty trick of him boasting of Hillary’s bona fides (and gently revising his own legacy) so that she doesn’t have to come off as a shrill braggart. Simply put, it’s an advantage that no one else has.

The big question, of course, is whether Bill is an asset or a liability. Certainly the man comes with an impressive set of baggage. But the 2007-08 Bill Clinton has aged well, combining the relaxed air of a man with not much to do with the gravitas of a man who has done much. He usually responds to the fervent ovations he receives at appearances by smiling and saying, “Good golly, everybody. Sit down.” And he dresses professorial-casual, donning a houndstooth sport coat over a sweater and slacks. At the same time, he takes pains to note that “the presidency is a hard job,” and that voting for someone is a “hiring decision” for voters — all the while making it clear who he thinks could best fill the role.

‘Converting voters by the hundreds’
Does it work? Two undecided voters in Decorah remained undecided after seeing the president speak last week. “He’s kind of a liability,” said Chris Storlie, 45, who works in a manufacturing facility in town and calls himself “pretty nonpolitical.” “But it helped me understand the issues, and it was nice to see someone who doesn’t read off a ‘prompter.” Storlie’s spouse, Rhonda, also 45, had a similarly ambivalent reaction; neither decided to support Hillary after seeing Bill.

But at the next stop in New Hampton in a northeastern part of the state where there are working-class votes to be had, Bubba impressed. He spoke for one hour at a local community center, with no notes, tweaking his pitch ever so slightly by localizing some of his anecdotes. (No small feat where one small Iowa town is barely distinguishable from the next small Iowa town.)

“After today, I’m going to support her, yes,” said Tom Gable, 73, a retired meter reader from New Hampton. “I didn’t know enough about her accomplishments before. Today, I got the background I needed from him.” It’s a phenomenon familiar to Hillary co-chair Crawford: “I’ve seen him converting voters by the hundreds.”

The softening of Hillary
Of course, this election is hardly — or at least, not just — a referendum on the Clinton presidency. It’s really about getting away from the last eight years of Bush II — even Republican candidates are loath to mention Dubya. And in the eyes of some, you can’t get much further away from George W. Bush than by going with Hillary Clinton. In fact, they are the two most polarizing figures in the last 15 years of U.S. politics. Hillary has her own baggage to deal with.

With that, she has taken to adopting some of Bill’s folksiness — “Goodness gracious,” she can be heard remarking from time to time — which works in Iowa. Mostly, though, she takes great pains to show that she plays well with others. “I’ve introduced far more bipartisan bills than any of the other senators running,” she declared Saturday at a speech in Maquoketa. She then went on to talk about a bill she worked on with Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, regarding health insurance for members of the National Guard and reserves who have been to war.

In fact, Clinton is banking hard on health care, and it is a major concern among Iowa voters. A good portion of her stump speech is devoted to the issue that made her so unpopular after her health care reformation bid under Clinton I. Conventional wisdom would suggest that she might run far from that debacle, but Clinton has turned it into an asset. “You can pick a president based on how they respond to failure,” Bill said in New Hampton, a classic Clinton move in circumnavigation.

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“It’s a new beginning, a new beginning in health care,” Hillary said Saturday. “It is time.”

In fact, the Clintons are playing it both ways, simultaneously painting Hillary as someone with the right experience but who also is a breath of fresh air. Bill lists his wife’s many accomplishments — many before she was in the Senate — while constantly referring to her as “an agent for change,” a tagline he reportedly thought of.

Hillary speaks repeatedly of “change” in vague and certain terms, but she’s also not afraid to make crowds pine for the economic go-go days of the 1990s and attach herself to them. “We grew jobs in the ’90s,” Clinton said, “and everybody says, ‘Here she goes, talking about the past,’ but it’s not ancient history, it was only 10 years ago.” It’s the politics of nostalgia versus a new era, and the Clintons walk the fine line better than anyone.

Ultimately, Hillary has gotten a boost from Bill, but she’s yet to pull away. “There’s a core who’s for Hillary,” said former provost Ericson, counting himself a Joe Biden supporter “and a core that’s against her.”

Obama’s hope against hope
Barack Obama, as any Iowan surely knows by now, is selling a simple message: hope. But what exactly that means isn’t clear. For such a touchy-feely message, the feeling in Iowa is that Obama is oddly detached and remote — something that is preventing him from having the breakthrough in Iowa.

“People don’t feel a personal connection with him,” said Dave Nagel, a former congressman from Waterloo who was also the state’s Democratic Party chair. “It’s the same problem that the first Bush had in ’88 and Al Gore had in 2000. They don’t get out beyond the ropes.”

What Nagel means is that in Iowa, a candidate has to be accessible; pressing the flesh and sharing a cup of coffee is far more important than any specific issue. Nagel cites an appearance by Obama in Waverly earlier this year where people had to wait in line to shake his hand and the candidate would not pose for pictures. By contrast, according to Nagel, John Edwards made the same stop two weeks later, but with a different tack. “If you wanted to shake hands with John, you walked up and shook his hand,” Nagel said. “He stayed until every last picture was taken.”

At an appearance in Marshalltown last week, the tight control over the Obama campaign was evident. Volunteers — many of them roughly college age —fretted over a smattering of reporters who had set up camp outside the designated press area. And all of them remarked that they were told not to speak to media. Obama himself strode into the cafeteria of Marshalltown High late and from a side door that was not plainly evident.

For all of the “hope” and “change” Obama offers, he is the most calculated of all the candidates. On this day, he literally read his stump speech, which appeared to be laminated. For all the vitality and charisma Obama can offer on television, in person his message is oddly fleeting.

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“Hope has been the guiding force behind the most important change in this country,” Obama said, mentioning the Revolutionary War, the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. The latter two are clearly issues near to Obama’s heart, given how his race has informed his political life. But it’s not clear how much this resonates in a state with 2.9 million people, only 5 percent of them Hispanic or African-American.

There is no doubt that Obama is a person of great intellect and a new voice in American politics — has any presidential candidate used an O’Jays song as part of his or her rally music? — but his electability, or perceived lack thereof, looms large in the minds of many Iowa Democrats. “He is a breath of fresh air, with a different message,” said Kim Proescholdt, 51, a maintenance worker at the school. But Proescholdt described himself as an independent, not a Democrat. And those are the people Obama needs to bring him victory in Iowa.

After his speech, Obama did shake some hands and pose for pictures, but he was cordoned off from the crowd part of the time. More noticeably, there were several security guards standing no more than a few feet away from him, a protective measure beyond what any other candidate has. Ako Abdul-Samad, a state rep from Des Moines who is black, acknowledged that Obama faces hurdles that other candidates don’t in regard to personal safety — something the campaign doesn’t publicly acknowledge.

“We cannot be governed by fear or succumb to that,” Abdul-Samad said. “I would never minimize the civil rights struggle to say America has not grown by leaps and bounds since the days of Dr. King, Malcom X or the Kennedys.”

Still, it’s clear that there is a realization of potential risk out there for Obama. Thinking of this, it’s hard not to view his candidacy as a difficult triumph in and of itself. It must be pretty heavy to face that stop after stop, day in day out. This is something the candidate, of course, would never say.

Still, Obama got quite a boost from an unlikely factor in Iowa: Oprah Winfrey. Many aren’t sure that the Oprah effect will have any lasting impact. Dave Nagel, who is not supporting a particular candidate, put it this way just before Christmas: “I think Obama peaked two weeks ago.”

The Edwards ground game
John Edwards certainly surged right before Christmas, gracing the cover of Newsweek and hanging tough in the polls when many were ready to call the Democratic side a two-horse race. “He’s moving like a turtle, but moving in the right direction,” according to Nagel. Slow and steady may win the race, but Edwards underwhelmed at one stop in Independence last week.

Speaking in the banquet room of a pizzeria and restaurant, Edwards put forth a message striking in its negativity — which in itself contrasts the candidate from all the hope and change Barack and Hillary keep talking about. But that doesn’t play well with Iowa voters. “‘Livid’ and ‘outrage’ are not words we like to hear,” Nagel said. Edwards can be charming — Newsweek noted his “Tom Cruise smile” — but hearing him rail against corporate America for 30 minutes, he seems oddly disjointed. Further, Edwards takes folksiness to an off-putting extreme. His Southern accent lacks the charm of Bill Clinton’s, for example. It’s distinctively Carolinian, slow, soft and rounded. He has a habit of swallowing his R’s to the point of coming off like an insincere Andy Griffith.

Even so, Edwards is ringing true with someone — more than 250 people braved a true white-knuckle snowstorm to see him in Independence last Friday at a time when Edwards said he expected no more than 50. His message is risky. His “Two Americas” theme from 2004 has morphed into an all-out call for helping the poor, an anachronistic notion in these “I’ve got mine” times.

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A stronger point is his take on the squeeze of the middle class. This is a far more domestic and economic-oriented Iowa Caucuses than in 2004, when anti-war and pro-war factions squared off. The war is now so widely accepted as a failure that no one makes political hay of it — so it has been relegated, oddly, to the back burner even as it continues to be the real issue for the future of the country. The other issue in Iowa, though, is the economy, stupid. Things may be worse for the working and middle classes than it even appears, and Edwards senses this.

“Our tax policy, giving tax breaks to companies taking jobs out of America,” Edwards said brusquely, “is insanity. It makes no sense … when will this stop?” In case he was getting too shrill, he later got a laugh line by saying, “I don’t stay up at night worrying about whether Exxon is making enough money.”

Ultimately, though, the Edwards message may matter far less than his staff and volunteers. He has, after all, been in Iowa for six years, and pulled into second place in 2004. Even if he’s been polling behind Clinton and Obama (barely), it’s best not to count him out. “He has the best volunteer organization out there,” offered Nagel. “Getting a phone call for a candidate from a neighbor means a lot more in Iowa than some Robo-call.”

‘A three-sided coin’
According to Nagel and others, the tightness of the race between the top three Democratic contenders has not been exaggerated. “It’s a three-sided coin,” he said. “Who knows who will come up?”

From now on, it’s all strange caucus strategy. Obama has taken to telling people that if he’s not their first choice, then they should make him his second. What people are looking to now is what candidates will tell their supporters to do when they realize they are no longer viable. Dennis Kuicinch, for instance, has reportedly told his supporters (all three of them) to go to Obama if they leave him on caucus night.

And then there’s the question of who will turn out. In 2004, 125,000 Iowa Democrats caucused, a number that would help Edwards again. But Clinton and Obama are trying to bring more out on Thursday night, in the form of elderly women and young independents, respectively. If either candidate can shake up the old guard, he or she would stand to benefit. And it’s important to keep a close eye on Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, both of whom are out of the Iowa race, but carry much respect among Iowa Dems, many of whom feel the two senators are the most qualified on paper to run the country. Their word is gold.

“This is a total toss-up,” said Hillary co-chair Crawford. “Obama could surge, and Edwards is a serious force. Iowans like to kick the tires until the last minute. It’s going to come down to electability and experience.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

Thursday: Republican candidates campaigning in Iowa.