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Nostalgia in the air as Obama returns to Iowa

Iowa is where Barack Obama’s path to the presidency began. So it was fitting that on the Friday before the American people cast their ballots, Iowa was the spot for one of the Democrat's final campaign rallies.
Iamge: Barack Obama in Des Moines
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama addresses a rally at Western Gateway Park in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images
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Iowa is where Barack Obama’s path to the presidency began.

So it was fitting that on the Friday before the American people cast their ballots, Iowa was the spot for one of the Democrat's final campaign rallies.

Obama could have spent the two hours he spent here in a more competitive state, such as Virginia or Ohio.

But picking the Hawkeye State showed high confidence on his part. Iowa polls have shown him with a comfortable lead since summer.

In fact, no survey since mid-September has shown Obama with less than 51 percent of the vote in Iowa.

Des Moines also happens to be on the way back to Chicago where Obama spent part of Halloween with his two daughters.

A crowd of several thousand — respectable, but not mind-boggling in its size or intensity — greeted Obama on a glorious Midwestern fall morning.

Reading part of the time from a teleprompter, he said, “You helped launch this campaign ... I will always be grateful to all of you.”

What Obama owes Iowa Democrats
Were it not for about 90,000 Democrats who showed up to caucus for him on a cold night last January, Obama would not be where he seemed to stand Friday.

If opinion polls are accurately reflecting the electorate, he is on the brink of winning the White House, returning the Democrats to the dominance of the executive and legislative branches that they last enjoyed 14 years ago.

But he didn't invoke that Democratic dominance in his speech.

Instead, he reverted to the soothing vision of nonpartisan politics used to launch his campaign in late 2006 — a politics without division and strife, a politics none of us who report on Washington would recognize.

"The people of Iowa probably recognize this better than anybody: We need to get beyond the old ideological debates that divide us between left and right,” he told the crowd.

Calling on 'our better angels'
In his closing, he told them, “As I said from the beginning of this campaign, from the start of the journey all those months ago, the change we need isn’t just about new programs and policies. It’s also about a new attitude, it’s about a new way of treating each other, a new politics, a politics that calls on our better angels, instead of encouraging our worst instincts.”

He portrayed himself as the Great Unifier.

“We can’t afford the same tactics that pit us against each other, to make us afraid of one another … There’s no city or town that’s more pro-American that anywhere else. We are one nation, all of us are proud; all of us are patriots…”

He said he is confident that American politics can be changed. “I ask you to believe not in just in my ability to bring about change, but in yours. I know this change is possible, because I’ve seen it. I saw it here in Iowa on those weeks leading up to caucus night. I saw it on caucus night.”

He added, “I had the privilege of witnessing what was best in America” on the night he won the Iowa caucuses.

A 20-year-old Drake University student, Katie McCarthy, said she showed up at the rally after having already voted for Obama a few weeks ago.

“I wanted to hear him, to see what he was like, different from TV,” she explained. “It was really exciting.”

Asked for one specific thing she wanted Obama to do if he becomes president, McCarthy said, “I want him to lower taxes, for everyone.”

"Lower taxes even for me?" I asked McCarthy. “Unless you’re a CEO,” she replied.

It was here in Iowa in September 2007 when I interviewed Democrats at the Harkin Steak Fry, organized annually by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. That's when I heard the fervent, adulatory feelings about Obama that one still hears today from Democrats.

“I feel he’s not jaded by contributions from lobbyists,” said Jen van Oort, who went to the event with her husband, Levi, on that hot summer day to hear Obama. “He’s new to Washington, and I feel he doesn’t just say what you want him to say, he says what he thinks.”

It was in Des Moines last October that I heard Obama say that his having lived in Indonesia as a child gives him the understanding of foreign cultures that would be useful as president.

And it was in Iowa last December where I saw him campaign with an unruffled demeanor and a mixture of extemporaneous and memorized speeches to crowds in small towns such as Manchester, population 4,898.

Dennis Pearson, a self-described Republican, told me last January after hearing Obama in Manchester, “He seems to be an honest, sincere person who will bring back some sincerity to the presidency.”

And perhaps most fatefully, it was in Iowa that Sen. Hillary Clinton’s caucus strategy ended up costing her the support of many Democrats.

It was in Iowa way back in May 2006 — what seems like ancient times — that I talked to Democrats who said that Clinton should not run for the nomination and would not win the presidency. They were right about the latter, at least for 2008.

Jan Sutherland, a Council Bluffs, retiree and part-time teacher of English as a second language, said to me in May 2006, “There are too many people who dislike Hillary. It’s not that Hillary can’t handle the job, they just simply dislike Hillary, and they’d vote against her personally.”

Sutherland added: “I don’t think she can win. It will just keep the country split.”

Keep in mind that the conventional wisdom among pundits and reporters in Washington, D.C. at the very moment Sutherland was telling me this — in the spring of 2006 — was that Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

How wrong the conventional wisdom was — but there were unmistakeable signs in Iowa that it was wrong, even in the spring of 2006, well before Obama formally launched his bid.