Call it a cold-weather romance. For one last bitterly freezing day Wednesday in Iowa, the state’s Democrats enjoyed their sweet quadrennial privilege of being wooed by the presidential contenders.
No Democrats in any other state get this flattering treatment. It’s easy to see why Iowa Democrats turn out in such big numbers for rallies and why they don’t want to give up their privilege of going first.
Democrats vote Thursday night in the first-in-the-nation caucuses here, the state that has given the party its past nominees John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter, all of whom won the Iowa caucuses.
From a survey of those at Sen. Hillary Clinton’s rally Wednesday afternoon at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, it’s the loyalists, not the undecided, who turned out for election-eve intensity-boosting events.
The relative callowness of Clinton’s rival Sen. Barack Obama was on the minds of the Clinton faithful who showed up to cheer her in Cedar Rapids.
The big Cedar Rapids applause line for Clinton: Her argument that she's the one Democrat whom Republicans most love to hate. "They've been coming after me for 16 years. Much to their dismay, I'm still here."
At the same time, she argued that she has proven she can work with Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on improved medical benefits for National Guard members.
Obama and foreign policy experience
“We need somebody with experience,” said Judy Farrell, a retired fraud investigator from Marion. “I know that (John) Edwards and Obama can fire up people. Obama is inspiring; he’s like a Martin Luther King. But I don’t think he’s qualified for foreign policy. What foreign policy experience does he have?”
Then she made perhaps the most damning comparison one Democrat could make about another: “I worry about that as much as I did when George Bush was running,” alluding to Bush’s scant foreign policy credentials in 2000.
She added, of Obama, “I admire him; I admire his intelligence. But would I ever vote for him as president? Never.”
Maybe if he got some foreign policy experience under his belt over the next several years?
Farrell wrinkled her nose in disagreement and said, “No.”
She said, “Clinton’s message is so much more complete than Obama’s. Obama is all dreams — it’s not reality.”
Another Clinton fan at the Cedar Rapids rally, Vicki Striffler, a federal employee, said she’s backed Clinton since last spring.
“I understand that Obama has only been a senator a short time,” Striffler said. “Is that correct?”
Three years, replied this reporter.
“I just don’t think he has the experience Hillary does,” said Striffler.
In contrast, she decided to back Clinton because of “her experience, her experience as first lady for eight years, her experience as a senator; she’s been in politics her whole life.”
Yes, Striffler said the Republicans would use all the old allegations against Clinton if she’s the nominee: the Whitewater scandal and other controversies of the 1990s.
“She’s going to have all that thrown back in her face again — she can handle it,” Striffler said.
What role for Bill Clinton?
Striffler saw Bill Clinton not as a potential loose cannon or an embarrassment, but as an asset if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. After all, she pointed out, if anyone else were to become the first woman president, there’d be questions about her husband: What would his role be? Could he withstand the glare of publicity? But with Clinton, Striffler said, the nation would be gaining the counsel of an experienced statesman.
Two hours later and five miles up the road at Veterans Coliseum in downtown Cedar Rapids, Clinton’s rival Obama drew a crowd at least twice as large, perhaps three times as large as Clinton’s.
As with the Clinton event, it was largely the already committed who showed up. And when you talk about Obama’s fans in Iowa, “committed” means passionate, love-struck, unshakeable.
Obama volunteer Sara Todd, a Cedar Rapids nurse, said, “All those years of experience she’s talking about — a lot of that is being first lady, which isn’t necessarily foreign policy experience.”
Obama, she argued, “will be able to bring people together in a way that I don’t think she’ll be able to do. For whatever reason — fairly or unfairly — she seems to bring out in so many people such a negative response”
Fending off criticism — too nice?
Obama, whose stump speech is more playful and improvisatory than Clinton’s, tried to fend off the criticism from both Edwards and Clinton.
He addressed the inexperience issue by mocking Washington insiders whom he portrayed as saying, “We need to boil all the hope out of him.”
And Obama also poked fun at those — meaning Edwards — who claim that “he’s too nice, too courteous.”
Alluding to the fiery campaign rhetoric dished out by Edwards, Obama said, “There is no shortage of anger in Washington. We don’t need more heat; we need more light.”
And Obama gave signs of some anxiety in his camp about whether his supporters — many of whom will be taking part in their very first caucus — would show up.
The pundits, Obama told the Cedar Rapids crowd, “question whether you are actually going to come out” and added, to clamorous applause, “The question is, how are you going to prove them wrong?”
He implied that Clinton and her allies were those who “know how to play the game better” and those who “have a game plan.” Instead, Obama said, “We need to put an end to the game plan.”
Obama also rebutted those who called him “naïve” and “passive” because he relied so much on the rhetoric of “hope.”
As Obama was winding up his pitch, Edwards was opening his Cedar Rapids rally three miles away at the Marriott Hotel.
The crowd amounted to perhaps 500, on a par with Clinton’s. Edwards was offering his trademark pugilistic anti-corporate rhetoric.
Edwards rails against 'corporate greed'
“Corporate greed is not just stealing the future of the children of Democrats; it is doing the same thing to the children of independents; the same thing to the children of Republicans."
The corporate powers had the U.S. government in “an iron-fisted grip,” he told his supporters. He offered himself as the leader of “an epic fight for the future of the middle class in this country.”
It may not be an omen, only a coincidence: But it was in this very same city exactly four years ago that I heard the same kind of dire, demise-of-the-middle-class rhetoric from 2004 contender Dick Gephardt.
He finished fourth in Iowa. Edwards seems bound to do better than that, but will he get the victory he may need here to stoke the fires of his campaign beyond Iowa?