DES MOINES, Iowa—Counting down the last 10 seconds of 2007 in a local restaurant, Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff did its best to end the year on a celebratory high note.
Just hours earlier, as the press bus pulled in to Des Moines at the end of another day of solid campaign performances by Mrs. Clinton, reporters alerted the champagne-sipping traveling campaign staff to a gloating email they had just received from Barack Obama’s campaign heralding a Des Moines Register poll that showed Mr. Obama with a seven-point lead over Mrs. Clinton.
Despite the bad news, Mrs. Clinton stood on a stage next to her husband minutes later at a New Year’s rally, broadcasting her astonished, opened-mouth smile while hundreds of tipsy supporters in sparkling hats cheered.
“We’ve got two full days till Thursday comes and then Iowans are going to pick the next president,” she said. She urged the crowd to “party, party, party” before another day of hard work. As she spoke, her campaign sent out its own e-mail preparing reporters for a memo from Mrs. Clinton’s chief pollster, Mark Penn, in which he would argue in detail that the Register’s numbers were flawed.
The mood inside the campaign has been swinging wildly in the concluding hours of the Iowa caucuses. Polls have fluctuated. Buzz and perceived momentum have moved from Mrs. Clinton, to Mr. Obama, to John Edwards and then back again.
For Mrs. Clinton, who had hoped to stay above the fray of her bickering opponents, things had gotten away from any clear, Clintonian master plan. She had felt compelled to respond, however obliquely, to the needling of her opponents, saying that it was important to do more than “talk” in order to get things done, drawing a sharp response from the Edwards campaign. At the same time, accounts of the always-competent campaign performances she turned in day after day were accompanied in the national press by trivial stories about her daughter refusing an interview to a 9-year-old reporter and a surrogate, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, denouncing the primacy of Iowa’s caucus system.
Her task was to see to it that none of that mattered to the caucusgoers at her events, who, as a campaign spokesman correctly pointed out, would rely far more on their own judgment than on the media’s.
“It doesn’t matter to me what they say,” Jane Snyder, 54, said after hearing Mrs. Clinton campaign in Ames on Tuesday. “It’s more important for me to see the candidate.”
In speech after identical speech, Clinton’s closing argument read like a map of all the thematic ground she had covered in a year of continual calibration.
The overarching message boiled down to the notion that in these challenging and unpredictable times, the country cannot take a chance on an unknown quantity and needs a candidate who has deep familiarity with the ways of the White House.
“I’m not asking you to take me on faith,” Mrs. Clinton said at events in Keokuk, Fort Madison and Muscatine. In Traer, she said, “I am asking you to look at the record, look at the evidence.”
Exhibit A was her role in her husband’s administration.
“When I went to the White House with Bill, there were a lot of problems waiting on that desk in the Oval Office and we went about trying to solve them,” she said in Keokuk. In Fort Madison she said, “I bring 35 years of experience that is directly applicable” to the job of president. (Mr. Obama has retorted by saying that as first lady, Mrs. Clinton had no official portfolio to speak of.)
She talked about representing Iowans and all Americans in more than 80 countries, including Ireland, where she helped end the Troubles by facilitating dialogue between Protestant and Catholic women. “I brought people together,” she said in Vinton, adding, “Actually, I went to Northern Ireland more than my husband did.”
On Friday, she told voters in Dubuque about a 1990’s visit to Bosnia in which her helicopter made a “corkscrew landing” to counter the threat of sniper fire. (She didn’t mention that she was traveling at the time with daughter Chelsea, Sheryl Crow and Sinbad.)
But it was the more mundane, personal anecdotes that seemed to make the most powerful impression on audiences: her efforts to improve education and help children in Arkansas; her memories of a pediatrician who actually made house calls; her reminiscences of life before the cameras followed her every move.
Those anecdotes were the result of a tactical adjustment in December, when her campaign decided she needed to demonstrate her humanity, talking more about herself, using more body language and humor.
In Muscatine on Monday, she dressed in a sleeping-bag-size duster coat and posed for photographers with a snowman she named “Caucus.” Inside, she excoriated President Bush, and when her microphone went dead, she joked, “I knew he’d catch up with me.”
The other significant late addition to Mrs. Clinton’s delivery is an emphasis on “change,” a word she uttered 17 times in one appearance in Ames on Tuesday. Her signature line is that instead of screaming for change or hoping for it—like Mr. Edwards or Mr. Obama—she believes in working, as she says, “really, really hard for it.”
For all her efforts to dispel the notion that she is too polarizing to win a general election, most of Mrs. Clinton’s surefire applause lines carry a distinctly anti-Bush sentiment.
“We cannot listen to the two oilmen in the White House any longer,” she bellowed in Traer, where she also vowed to stop borrowing “money from the Chinese to buy oil from the Saudis.” In Muscatine she promised to “end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind” and called the Bush administration a “government of the few, by the few and for the few.”
And of course, there are her own long-running hostilities to point to.
“The Republicans have been after me for about 16 years now,” she said in Vinton, updating one of her favorite lines for the New Year. “And much to their dismay, I’m still here.”
The reviews, from the Iowans at her events, at least, have generally been good.
“I think she’s got more experience,” Delane Kalina, an auditor who decided to caucus for Mrs. Clinton, said in Vinton. “And I like her.”
In Iowa Falls, Dawn Parker, an undecided 54-year-old special-education teacher said she planned to see Mr. Obama the next day and had already seen Mr. Edwards several times. But she had liked what she saw and heard from Mrs. Clinton.
“When I listened to her tonight, I hear that she was there, and she can do it,” she said. “She sounds like a student teacher who can take over the classroom without any problems. She has the right experience and the right attitude.”
In Keokuk, Paul Wykowski, a 52-year-old worker in a corn milling factory, said he felt suckered by the Bush administration into supporting the war in Iraq the same way she did, so he didn’t hold her authorization for war against her. “It’s easy for Barack Obama to say he was against it, but he didn’t have to stand there and vote,” Mr. Wykowski said.
And in Traer, Jarold Lister, an 80-year-old retired teacher, said Mrs. Clinton’s performance had moved her up to his second choice. (His first choice was Joe Biden.) He said he had supported Mr. Edwards in 2004 and, as a child of the Great Depression, responded positively to his emphasis on fighting poverty. But ultimately, he said, he was leaning toward Mrs. Clinton.
“I listened to her very closely today and she’s got everything covered,” he said. “Everything that they have, she has, but look—experience matters. Regardless of what they say, being around it means something.”
On New Year’s Eve, as the campaign bus arrived in Des Moines after swerving on slippery roads through a blizzard that turned the entire flat landscape, and even the air outside the windows, white, the single e-mail from Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton about the Register poll overshadowed the entire day’s hard work for the Clinton campaign.
But the Clintons themselves had no time to exude anything but confidence and smiles. Supporters wearing sparkly green bowler hats and sparkly silver glasses with “Hillary” across the bridge awaited the couple in Capital Square, which was sticky with spilled champagne and beer. After the group Big Head Todd and the Monsters played her campaign anthem, “Blue Sky,” in an endless live loop behind them, the Clintons stuck to the script.
“The people of Iowa have been so wonderful to us,” Mr. Clinton said, shortly before the couple descended to shake hands. (Mrs. Clinton accepted hands extended over the bunting-covered guard rails; her husband reached over them as if rescuing supporters who had been thrown overboard.)
Most of the supporters hadn’t heard about the poll.
“Oh, really,” said Bob Snyder, a 66-year-old volunteer from Des Moines, in a dejected tone. He had spent much of the prior day working the phone banks for Mrs. Clinton, in which a lot of the people he contacted and expected to be for her still declared themselves undecided. “It was surprising.”
The mood, mostly, was defiantly cheery.
One Clinton opposition researcher sang songs he wrote in college. Huma Abedin, Mrs. Clinton’s elegant “body person,” smiled broadly from within a circle of male admirers. Teresa Vilmain, Mrs. Clinton’s Iowa campaign manager, celebrated the discovery of her temporarily misplaced BlackBerry with a pull from her bottle of beer.
At around 1:30 a.m., the most committed, and mostly younger, Clinton staffers headed up to Ms. Vilmain’s apartment for an after-party. They packed in so tightly among the African paintings on the walls and red slinky sculptures on the floor that Ms. Vilmain had to tug—hard—on the arms of departing guests to help get them out the door.
Male guests used her counter tops as levers to pry off bottle caps. One campaign worker looked at a tall man hanging out by the door and shouted, “U.S. Secret Service!” The man lifted his drink in acknowledgment. They flirted and whispered in each other’s ears. Outside the apartment, the hallway’s walls were lined with winter coats and empty beer bottles.
In the morning, the Clinton machine was back at work. With the columnists, television personalities and assorted heavy hitters of the national press now trailing the campaign full time, the first order of business was to counterspin the Register poll. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack did so, in the course of introducing her at an event in Ames, by citing two newer, more favorable voter surveys.
“Two polls out this morning indicate that Senator Clinton is ahead,” he said. “Momentum is on our side. I can feel it.”
Then Mrs. Clinton took the microphone and started again.