Tom Curry/ MSNBC.com
Jen and Levi van Oort, from Clarence, Iowa trekked to Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry Sunday to cheer their favorite presidential contender, Sen. Barack Obama
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/16/2007 9:48:30 PM ET 2007-09-17T01:48:30

When six Democratic presidential contenders exhorted a crowd of several thousand Iowa Democrats Sunday, it didn’t take much to lift their buoyant mood.

“We’re building a new ‘field of dreams’ for the country we love and we’re going to take it back,” shouted Sen. Hillary Clinton as she wooed the crowd.

“This country is desperate for leadership,” she declared.

Democrats in this state are bullish about their party’s White House prospects next year.

With the presidential contest beginning in Iowa in January with the precinct caucuses, activists from across the state trooped to a field in Indianola, 15 miles south of Des Moines, to hear Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, and four other contenders pay homage to Iowa’s quintessential Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin, at his annual steak fry fund-raiser.

But the real reason for a presidential contender to come to Indianola was to convince voters that he or she was the only person to reclaim the White House.

A win and a catapult
A win in the caucuses here could catapult the victor to the nomination as happened with John Kerry three years ago.

President Bush won this state by six-tenths of 1 percent in 2004. But Democratic activists think the electorate is moving toward them.

One of the warm-up speakers for Harkin boasted that the veteran Democratic senator does not even have an announced Republican opponent for his re-election race next year.

Video: Senators square off on Iraq “The country is begging for a change, literally begging for a change,” said Yvonne Fielder, a speech instructor at Des Moines Area Community College. “They’re tired of Bush and they’re tired of the Republicans.”

Exemplifying the shift were Levi and Jen van Oort, Obama supporters who came from Clarence, Iowa, a three-hour drive from Indianola.

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“I’m a registered Republican and Obama swayed me; he’s an eloquent speaker and I like how he stands on a lot of the issues,” said Levi van Oort. He said “we’ll see” once the caucuses get closer whether he will change his party registration so he can go to the local caucus to back Obama.

Van Oort said he voted for Bush in 2004, explaining that he and Jen “both decided together he was the better candidate at the time” — compared to Kerry.

Obama, he said, “makes me comfortable when I hear him and I guess I trust the guy.”

“I see Obama as a moral change in Washington,” said Jen van Oort. “It seems like everyone else are from a similar path that we’ve gone down before. I feel he’s not jaded by contributions from lobbyists. He’s new to Washington and I feel he doesn’t just say what you want him to say, he says what he thinks.”

Yet Democrats’ confidence that Obama or some other Democrat will win the White House in 2008 is tinged by fear of an international event that could alter dynamics of the race.

Peggy Huppert, the former Polk County Democratic Party chairwoman, said Republicans in the state are “dispirited, they’re disorganized.”

She pointed to the low turnout (250 people) for a recent event for Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson in Des Moines.

Waiting for that other shoe to drop
But, she said, “I would say as an experienced Democrat you’re always kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Could the “other shoe” be an external event such as a nuclear crisis with Iran?

“Most likely,” chimed in James Erb, a Democrat from Charles City, Iowa, who happened to be sitting at the picnic table next to Huppert at the steak fry.

“I don’t think anyone would put it past Bush to engineer something,” said Huppert.

“There are a lot foreign possibilities,” added Erb. “Or any terrorist act in the United States.”

Erb said he will be supporting Clinton on caucus night in January because she has the widest experience to cope with what will be a very stressful presidency.

“And I’d add Hillary Clinton is not nearly as far left as the public for some reason seems to think,” he said.

Erb said John Edwards is “trying to stake out the left flank” on economic issues and the Iraq war. And by doing that, Erb argued, Edwards is making himself more vulnerable to Republicans’ attacks should he end up as the party’s nominee.

Chilliness toward Clinton
But Edwards retains a core of admirers in Iowa and some Democrats at the steak fry voiced chilliness toward Clinton.

Yvonne Fielder described herself as uncommitted at the start of the event; after hearing the contenders’ speeches, she said she had decided to back Edwards.

“It would be nice to see her with passion in the voice, the body language,” Fielder said of Clinton. “I hate to say less robotic but more personal.”

Fielder’s friend, Connie Bock, a pharmacy technician from Carroll County in western Iowa and a volunteer for the Edwards campaign, said, “I really hear passion and heart in his voice. He’s not wavered from what he said four years ago. I don’t consider him a Washington insider and that’s another attraction.”

True to form, Edwards gave the audience a super-sized serving of red-meat populist rhetoric. “This system in Washington D.C. is rigged … it does not work for ordinary Americans,” Edwards shouted.

“I don’t believe you can give lobbyists a seat at the table; if you give them a seat at the table they’ll take all the food, they’ll be nothing left for the rest of America…. We have to take these people on, we have to fight them,” he said.

Without naming the names of any of his rivals for the nomination, he added, “I don’t want to see us replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats!”

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