DES MOINES, IA.—Hunched down with the photographers at the Iowa Democratic Party dinner, I’m about three feet from White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and wife Michelle. I’m watching them at their ringside table watch chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) who is about three feet from me up on the stage.
The Obamas sit with their hands folded. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is introducing Clinton, they stand with everybody else and clap politely when Clinton gets on the stage and hugs Pelosi. The Obamas neither smile nor react to the sea of photographers wedged in the area I am in. The photographers are swinging between shooting Clinton and them and the Obamas oblige by keeping up a pose.
“There are some who will say they don’t know where I stand,” Clinton tells the crowd of Democratic activists. “Now I think you know better than that. I stand where I have stood for 35 years. I stand with you and with your children and with every American who needs a fighter in their corner for a better life.”
The “don’t know where I stand” comment--that’s a pre-emptive strike at Obama, who has been saying just that. I pivot to see if Obama reacts. I am right in front of him. He puts first one, than two fingers to his lips. He looks pensive, absorbing what Clinton is saying. The photographers—still and video—are shooting. For a moment, Michelle Obama looks annoyed.
Seated next to Michelle is Jill Kraus and her husband, Dr. Steven Kraus of Carroll, Ia. He is part of Obama’s leadership team for the Jan. 3 first-in-the nation Iowa caucus.
Up on the stage Clinton is saying, “I’m not interested in attacking my opponents.” She brings out her new slogan. She wants to be “turning up the heat on the Republicans.”
Clinton’s sections in the bleachers chant back the new refrain, “Turn up the heat.”
I pivot again to look at Obama, who keeps a bland look on his face. For now, Clinton has refrained mostly from making direct references to Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as Obama and Edwards are willing increasingly to hit her—directly and indirectly.
Before the speeches began, I talked with Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe. “We don’t need to get in a fight with the other Democrats. They want to get negative against us, they want to get frisky, that’s their decision. I tell you this, though. You go negative at your peril. In Iowa they don’t like it.”
Clinton is now alluding to the electability issue. It’s the shadow hanging over her campaign. In Iowa, voters want their caucus to produce to general election winner. Clinton’s rivals have been mounting the argument that no matter what, in the end, she won’t be able to overcome her baggage and appeal to cross-over voters—Independents and Republicans, especially in swing states.
“Not only Democrats,” Clinton is saying, “but Independents and Republicans. She ticks off big endorsements from leaders in red states, including Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio. “Democrats know, when we win Ohio, we win the White House.”
She’s done. Pelosi is introducing Obama and he has that pensive look still. On the way to the stage, he stops and shakes a few hands. He’s getting looser. Then, the transformation. As Obama bounces up the nine stairs to the stage his Cheshire grin breaks out and his energy surge is palatable.
Someone in the balcony shouts to Obama, “I love you.”
He’s on. “I love you back.”