DES MOINES, IA.—If the winner of the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus was based on whose supporters can yell the loudest inside this arena—hosting a giant gathering of Iowa Democrats Saturday night—then Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has the edge. At least so far. The night is young. Blog scoop: Chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will introduce a new theme tonight--“Turn up the Heat.”
I’m reporting from inside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium at the Iowa State Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson dinner. The sports arena has been transformed into a mini-Democratic convention with signs and hoopla. But unlike the national nominating conventions, which are coronations, no one knows who is going to win the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.
The campaigns have used this dinner as a test of their organizational strengths and a chance to plead directly with the most influential Democrats in the state and the nations political reporters and columnists gathered here. Obama donor stroking is being handled on the ground here by Juliana Smoot, Obama's National Finance Director and Deputy Finance Director Ami Copeland.
In the arena, the bleacher seats have been stacked with t-shirt wearing supporters. Their main job—and do not discount the importance to the campaigns—is to provide visible and audible coordinated shows of support. Each dinner table has a sign. Clinton's tables have signs keyed to her speech: They say "Turn Up the Heat." Her campaign tells me that is a reference to President Bush, not to her rivals.
The 3,000 or so Obama troops in red t-shirts are organized. When the north bleacher section yells Obama’s trademark “Fired Up” the south section seats shouts “Ready to Go.” The result is thunderous. They are waving “O” shaped glow rings with the campaign colors. They have shout leaders holding up signs with various signs. They are supposed to be sitting by region, the better to make sure they are organized on caucus night.
And for a touch, the Obama forces are handing out customized fortune cookies. Bill Daley—the former Commerce Secretary, mayoral brother, Obama backer—showed me his fortune. “You’re fired up. You’re ready to go!”
The Clinton army is wielding yellow thunder sticks, which, when clapped together as they have been doing, creates much noise. The Edwards team has their block letter team at work, spelling out Edwards.
Obama Iowa State Director Paul Tewes said this tour de force has been in the works “for weeks to a month.”
The campaigns are color coded. Red for Obama, Yellow for Clinton and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct.), White for Edwards and Sen. Joe Biden and blue for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The square stage is in the middle of the arena, surrounded by tables filled with guests who get a dinner. There is no podium or teleprompter. The pressure is on to deliver without a safety net.
Obama and Clinton have been memorizing their speeches. Obama has been working nailing his lines for days. Blog scoop: When Obama is introduced, it will be to the Chicago Bulls entrance music and the former voice of the championship Bulls seasons, Ray Clay.
There have been rallies and parades in Des Moines this afternoon in order to jazz up supporters. The union support for Edwards was translated Saturday into getting backers to the arena. A bus on a downtown corner—an Edwards gather point—had signs on it from the Iowa SEIU, Carpenters and Steelworkers unions.
The program started with emcee House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who offered a few of her own remarks.
“And to those of you who ask me what is it like to be the first woman Speaker of the House? It’s absolutely fabulous.”
Pelosi is introducing each contender as the next president of the United States.
Excerpts from the Obama speech.....
“When I’m your nominee, my opponent won’t be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I support that Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders we don’t like. And he won’t be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether it’s ok for America to use torture – because it’s never ok. That’s why I’m in it.”
“This party – of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy – has made the most difference in people’s lives when we’ve led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we’ve had leaders who could summon the entire nation to a common purpose – a higher purpose. And I am running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States because that’s the party America needs us to be right now. “
“I don’t want to pit Blue America against Red America, I want to lead the United States of America.”
“I’m running because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” I’m running because I believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.
I run for the presidency for the same reason I fought to bring jobs to the jobless and hope to the hopeless on the streets of Chicago; for the same reason I stood up for justice and equality as a civil rights lawyer; for the same reason I’ve fought for Illinois families for over a decade.
Because I will never forget that the only reason I’m standing here today is because someone, somewhere stood up when it was risky. Stood up when it was hard. Stood up when it wasn’t popular. And because that someone stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand. And then a few million. And together, standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world.
That’s why I run, Iowa – to give my children and yours the same chances someone gave me.
That’s why I run, Democrats – to keep the promise of America alive for those who still hunger for opportunity and thirst for equality.
That’s why I’m asking you to stand with me, to caucus for me, to stop settling for what the cynics tell us we must accept. In this election – at this moment – let us reach for what we know is possible. A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.”