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After the steak-fry: ranking the candidates

After knocking around Iowa for a few days and then seeing the six major Democratic presidential contenders speak to a throng of 12,000 eager Iowans at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry, here’s my first-to-worst box score on the presidential hopefuls in Iowa:
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After knocking around Iowa for a few days and then seeing the six major Democratic presidential contenders speak to a throng of 12,000 eager Iowans at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry, here’s my first-to-worst box score on the presidential hopefuls in Iowa: 

John Edwards may not have the biggest war chest or national organization, and yes, he built himself a colossal pleasure dome of a house in North Carolina, but he has honed himself into a pretty convincing man-of-the-people populist. He has learned a lot in six years of non-stop campaigning for the presidency. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have been listening to voters and the feedback loop is working. Seeing him here was like encountering a decent but unfocused rock band that finally had found its groove after years on the road. In NASCAR terms, I thought he blew the doors off the event here. He touched every chord – war, health care, taxes, global warming – with precision, personal narratives of real folks, and a real urgency. His polish surprised me. 

Hillary Clinton is the ultimate pro. Everything about her speech and her machine reflected that. A trivial but telling example: plastic “Hillary Holler for Change” megaphones, which doubled as containers for the popcorn she gave away. That’s Hillary: loud, useful and durable. She matched Edwards stride-for-stride in passion, specificity and focus. Like him, she understands what Iowa Democrats want and how they think – about themselves and their caucuses, but it didn’t take her years to figure it out.  There was an undercurrent of doubt in the farm field about her “electability.” That’s real. Still, it’s possible that her sheer drive and discipline will be enough to overcome that doubt.  She doesn’t so much win people over as exhaust them into acceptance. It’s a paradox: Her steely persona is her greatest drawback – and asset.

Bill Richardson has a roguish, bad-boy twinkle in his eye that lightens, but sometimes obscures, the matter-of-fact, blunt seriousness and sensibility of his messages. He has proposals, lots of them – an almost endless laundry list. They are designed to show that, given his broad and impressive resume, he knows more about hands-on governance than his competitors. And it is true. Too bad, for his sake, that he doesn’t seem to have much of an organization here. At least it wasn’t much in evidence at the Steak Fry. Still, as a speaker with clear with stark positions – especially his get-every-soldier-out-of-Iraq stand on the war – he drew head-nodding and cheers.

• Before I arrived here, I had expected Barack Obama to be the hit of the day. His organization is extensive and impressive, full of college kids from across the country. He has charisma and brains. He came marching into the field with a drum corps. His speech drew plenty of applause. He certainly didn’t bomb. But somehow, a spark plug wasn’t quite firing. He seems to believe that his existence as a candidate is enough of an inspiration and rationale to carry him. I get what he is saying: I am judicious and generous; I can bring us together. I am unity and hope personified. It’s a nice thought, as far is it goes. He came across here as a judge and arbiter as much as the fiery leader that I think Iowans – calm and studious as they are – want in 2008. He told a story about how a tiny “church lady” in a big hat in a small town in South Carolina had inspired him to be upbeat after a bad day on the trail. She commanded everybody in the room to get “fired up.” They did. As they got “fired up,” Obama did, too. It was a sweet but puzzling story. Why wasn’t HE the one firing them up? And why did he need firing up in the first place?

Joe Biden is the war and foreign policy expert, and the earnest Iowans listened carefully as he explained the facts of life in Mesopotamia and Washington. His talk of the folly of the Bush policy was convincing to the crowd, but not necessarily an argument for a Biden presidency to replace it. The Delaware senator’s proposal for a loose federation in Iraq seemed to make sense to Iowans, but they reacted to him more as though they were listening to a future secretary of state than a future president – which may in fact be the case.

Chris Dodd is an accomplished, deeply knowledgeable public servant who demonstrates the pitfalls of being in the Senate forever. While Edwards had mastered the trick of seeming to speaking intimately to the crowd, Dodd at times sounded as though he were shouting from the bleachers in Yankee Stadium. He talked about Senate legislation passed and pending. He made mordant fun of the process itself. “Now I am done sucking up to Tom Harkin,” he said with a smile. That drew laughs, but also conveyed a light “this is all a game” message that Iowans (unlike the Boston Irish back East) do not fully appreciate. Dodd promised that, if he won the presidency, he would invite everyone in the Field of Dreams to stay in the White House the night after his inauguration. “Oh geez, that means he thinks he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of winning,” said someone behind me in the crowd.

As for the state of the race, one speech does not a campaign make, even if delivered to the largest group of likely caucus attenders in Iowa history. Everything will depend on organization, the flow of the news, and plain luck.

At the moment, the collective sense here is that... there IS no collective sense. It is an unpredictable, three-way race among Hillary, Edwards and Obama.

Edwards will pile up delegate votes in the small towns; Obama will overwhelm the college communities; Hillary will have activist women and much (but not all) of the state establishment.

The main question I came here with was is Obama's organization good enough to bring in enough new caucus goers to win Iowa. The organization is good enough, but what they need is a candidate who is "fired up" by his own inexhaustible fuel.