DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 9—Oprah Winfrey made her long-awaited debut on the campaign trail with Barack Obama yesterday, pulling a crowd estimated by the Obama campaign at around 20,000 to downtown Des Moines despite driving sleet and fierce cold.
Echoing a line of argument regularly used by Mr. Obama to contrast his candidacy with Hillary Clinton’s, Ms. Winfrey said “I’m so tired of politics as usual” and added, “That’s why you seldom see politicians on my show—I only have an hour.”
“We the people,” Ms. Winfrey continued, “recognize that the amount of time you’ve spent in Washington means nothing unless you are accountable for the judgments you make. We need good judgment. We need Barack Obama.”
That sounded, in a campaign setting, very much like a jab at Mrs. Clinton for her 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Moments later, in a rare indication of her own feelings about the war, Ms. Winfrey added that, “Long before it was the popular thing to do, he [Mr. Obama] stood with courage and conviction against this war in Iraq.”
Specific policy questions aside, Ms. Winfrey also waxed lyrical about Mr. Obama, referring to him at one point as “a politician who has an ear for eloquence and a tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth.” She suggested his candidacy makes it possible “to dream America anew again.”
Returning to the change-versus-experience theme that has acquired central importance in the Democratic nomination battle, Ms. Winfrey stated, “Experience in the halls of government is not as important to me as experience on the pathways of life. I challenge you to see through those people who try and convince you that experience of politics as usual is more important than wisdom won from serving people outside the walls of Washington DC.”
The electoral effects of such trenchant, if implied, criticism of Mrs. Clinton by Ms. Winfrey cannot be definitively measured. But Mrs. Clinton’s decision to bring her daughter Chelsea and her mother Dorothy Rodham to Iowa yesterday suggested the former First Lady’s campaign was feeling some need to shore up female support in particular.
Ms. Winfrey was greeted with a huge roar when she was introduced on stage by Michelle Obama. But she nonetheless admitted to feeling nervous, and gently mocked the speculation and hype that had surrounded her appearance.
Referring to pundits who wondered whether her decision to take to the stump alongside Mr. Obama would carry the same weight as, say, her book club recommendations or her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” selections, Ms. Winfrey said, “I know the difference between a book club or a nice refrigerator and this critical moment in our nation’s history.”
Ms. Winfrey also told the crowd, “I’m not here to tell you what to think, but I am here to ask you to think, seriously.”
Ms. Winfrey’s appearance put Mr. Obama in the unusual position of being a secondary attraction for some of the audience at his own rally. The Illinois senator sought to make light of that, albeit with an odd combination of modesty and grand self-confidence:
“You know you’ve got a pretty good show when I’m the third-best speaker,” he said, as Ms. Winfrey and Mrs. Obama looked on. (He also referred to his wife as “too smart to want to be president,” adding that she would “rather tell the president what to do.”)
Mr. Obama said that he had sent Ms. Winfrey an email the previous night, referring to the massive demand for tickets, in which he wrote, “I guess you’re pretty popular. Who’d have thunk it?” But he also paid tribute to her as “someone who moves an entire nation each and every day.” For Ms. Winfrey to step “out of her comfort zone” in order to campaign with him was, according to Mr. Obama, “extraordinary.”
Mr. Obama otherwise stuck largely to his standard stump speech. Though it was extremely well-received on the whole, it never quite reached the pitch of acclaim earned by Ms. Winfrey herself. Some of Mr. Obama’s more aggressive criticisms of Republicans were met with less applause than at other events—a sign, perhaps, that Ms. Winfrey had attracted some voters who would not normally have showed up at an Obama event.
For pre-existing Obama supporters, though, the excitement of seeing Ms.Winfrey embrace their man so publicly seemed intense.
“Oprah was great,” Kimberly Barker, a student originally from Waterloo, IA, said. “The way she spoke, I didn’t even see it as like her being a celebrity. It seemed like she is just an individual who supports him wholeheartedly, like I do.”
Nana Gyamfi, a 40-year-old computer programmer, argued that “She has an effect, in that she will be able to swing a lot of women voters.”
And Susan Lathrop of Indianola, IA, noted, “They always say that celebrity endorsements don’t matter, but she might be different. I think her celebrity could affect turn-out. It’s certainly affected the turnout here today.”
David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, seemed an least as enthusiastic about the event than his job required him to be, praising Ms. Winfrey’s “genius” and her ability to attract 20,000 people to whom “Senator Obama gets the chance of make his pitch.”
But Mr. Axelrod was not so carried away as to miss the chance to take a shot at his campaign’s chief rival.
Asked about Mrs. Clinton’s increasingly pointed criticisms of Mr. Obama in recent weeks, Mr. Axelrod replied sardonically, “Yeah, she loved us when we were 30 points behind.”
He added: “I think people know what’s going on when someone changes their whole approach so radically.”