DES MOINES, IA.—A nervous Oprah Winfrey left the comfort zone of the media empire she rules to deliver the first political speech of her life for her friend, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), telling thousands of Iowa voters, “At last, I’m here.’’
The matinee rally at the Hy-Vee Hall here drew an estimated 18,500 according to the Obama campaign with thousands more expected for an evening event in Cedar Rapids.
Winfrey’s much-hyped appearance, to be repeated in South Carolina and New Hampshire on Sunday, comes as Obama is trending upwards in the polls and with the crucial Jan. 3 Iowa caucus looming. Winfrey, introduced by Michelle Obama, has never endorsed, much less campaigned for a candidate.
The senator said it was "hard” for Winfrey "to take the risk of her stepping out of her comfort zone. That takes an act of courage."
Obama’s political star power combined with Winfrey’s, one of the most influential and richest people in the nation, made for an extraordinary political event. Winfrey’s show and magazine appeals to the female voters being fought over by Obama and his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)
Winfrey, speaking from notes, at the top of her speech acknowledged the super-buildup to her entrée into the political arena.
“You know, so much has been said about what my jumping into this arena does or does not bring to the table of politics,” Winfrey said.
“I really don’t know. I’m going to leave that all up to the pundits, who will say, ‘will it be the same influence as her book club? Will it be like the ‘Favorite Things’ show?
“I don’t know about all of that. Despite all of the talk, the speculation, and the hype, I understand the difference between a book club and a free refrigerator.”
Winfrey added, “I understand the difference between that and this critical moment in our nation’s history.
For Obama, the gift Winfrey is giving the campaign is not so much her untested ability to actually convince people to caucus for Obama—but the enormous advantage her stumping gives the campaign to data-mine for potential supporters and to bolster his field organization.
Lizz Nichols, 54, of Indianola and her husband are both precinct captains for Obama. She was given six tickets of the rally and she used them to reward her best volunteers.
Winfrey is helping her seal the deal, Nichols said, “because women of America believe in Oprah and believe and respect her opinions.”
The talk show queen, who—as is Clinton—one of the most admired females in the country, never mentioned the name of any of Obama’s competitors, said, “So I am not here to tell you what to think. I am here to ask you TO think, seriously. I want you to think seriously about a man who knows who we are. And knows who we can be.”
Calling her decision to stump for Obama “very, very personal,” Winfrey looked around at the sea of people in front of her and said, “It feels like I am out of my pew, I’m out of my terrain. Backstage somebody said, ‘Are you nervous?’
“I said, ‘You’re damn right I’m nervous. Yes I am because I’ve never done this before.
“But if we continue to the same things over and over and over again, I know you get the same results. So what I believe is that it is time for us all to ‘let dream’ America anew, by supporting Barack Obama.”
A relatively small number of Democrats actually caucus in Iowa—only 124,000 in 2004, so a solid ground game is critical to identify potential backers.
In order to get in the rally, each person had to fill out a name and address card. People were also asked to sign commitment cards. People who declined to sign the commitment card—but were interested enough to show up—will make up a ripe new universe of “prime persuadables” the Obama campaign will lobby in the days ahead.
To try to counter the enormous media interest in Winfrey—some 150 reporters signed up for creditionals in Des Moines—Clinton’s daughter Chelsea and mother came out to stump for the New York senator for the first time, joining her in Iowa, presenting a portrait of three generations of Clinton women on a stage. Former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife Saturday in South Carolina.
In the hall, Kay Huston, 67, a Des Moines retiree who called herself an undecided Republican open to caucusing for a Democrat said Winfrey was part of the reason she came. “I had missed other opportunities to see Obama, so I thought, ‘I am not going to miss this one.”