COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa–A semi-hoarse Barack Obama told a sizeable crowd in this western Iowa town Tuesday night, "Washington is in its last throes, as my cousin Cheney would say."
It was a notably pointed remark from Mr. Obama, who often gets more gently humorous mileage out of his distant shared heritage with the vice-president. But it played into the Illinois senator’s broader closing argument in Iowa that he, rather than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, is best placed to deliver change.
He slapped at both his closest rivals here, though as usual without naming them. In a clear allusion to Mrs. Clinton, he said it was not credible to claim simultaneously that one was "steeped in conventional thinking" yet also about to chart "a bold new course" in foreign policy.
In an equally transparent attempt to repudiate Mr. Edwards’ idea that he is too conciliatory by nature, Mr. Obama said, "We don’t have a shortage of anger in Washington, we don’t have a shortage of bitter partisanship in Washington. We don’t need more heat, we need more light."
Toward the end of his 47-minute address, Mr. Obama also complained about being the subject of negative attacks. Again referring to unnamed opponents, he excoriated "shadowy mailings" and "phone calls saying ‘Obama is this, Obama is that.’" He made particular note of claims that his health care plan would not bring about universal coverage – a charge that most often emanates from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign – and said, "They know that’s not right."
Despite the intensity of the Iowa campaign’s closing days, Mr. Obama did his best to inject some dry humor into the proceedings. He empathized with Iowans who he said he knew "are tired of hearing ‘and I approved this message.’"
And he poked fun at himself even when engaged in the serious business of trying to win over undecided voters:
"A light bulb will go off, a beam of light will shine down, and you will say to yourself, ‘I need to caucus for Barack," he claimed in mock-grandiose style.
Mr. Obama’s buoyant spirits may be due in part to the result of the new poll published in Tuesday’s Des Moines Register. It gave him a seven-point lead over Mrs. Clinton and an eight-point edge over Mr. Edwards. His 32 percent share was a four-point improvement over his rating last month and put his lead for the first time beyond the Register poll’s margin of error.
Still, the poll’s screening methods aroused the annoyance of some other campaigns and even the pronouncements of Mr. Obama’s advisors suggested they saw it more as a useful fillip for morale than as a practical guide to the actual state of this uncommonly tight and volatile race.
Similarly, while Mr. Obama sounded confident in many ways – telling the audience that Iowans had already "vindicated" his "faith" in a new kind of politics, and later stating that his general approach "looks like it might have worked" – he also went all-out to answer the most common criticisms leveled against him.
He insisted, as he does in almost all his speeches in these closing days, that "hope isn’t blind optimism" or naivete. He emphasized that he knew improving education or reducing poverty was "a lifelong task" not something for which a quick fix could be found. And he mocked those who have suggested he is insufficiently seasoned by suggesting they think "we need to boil all the hope out of him so he sounds more like us."
Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates, including her husband, have been stressing her toughness and purported electability in recent days.
Mr. Obama was not ceding any ground on that issue, insisting that the latest polls "show that I beat every single Republican. I beat ‘em all."
The reason behind this alleged electoral strength, Mr. Obama asserted, was that he was capable of "attracting independents and Republicans in a way that no other candidate can."
Expanding on his now-standard soundbite relating to the construction of political coalitions – "I’m tired of division, I want addition" – Mr. Obama insisted that those Republicans "who have lost trust in government" could be drawn in to a new progressive majority.
This may have been a particularly apposite argument in Council Bluffs, which nestles in the midst of Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District, the broadly conservative swath of the state represented by stridently anti-illegal-immigration Republican Steve King.
The crowd for Mr. Obama, which numbered around 1000 even on an evening of forbidding cold, seemed to be comprised primarily of young enthusiasts and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, however.
One audience member, Bill Bowerman, afterwards expressed himself "stunned" by the power of Mr. Obama’s oratory and his ability to connect with an audience.
Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the silver-haired Mr. Bowerman was visiting from Lawrence, KS., and is therefore ineligible to caucus on Thursday.
The younger Iowans in attendance, however, seemed enthused not just by Mr. Obama’s speech but by a brief set from singer-songwriter Conor Oberst which preceded it.
Mr. Oberst, better known to some under the name Bright Eyes, hails from just across the state line in Omaha, Neb. He told the crowd, "I met the next president of the United States earlier today."
One of the songs Mr. Oberst performed, ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ includes the beseeching line, "Don’t walk away, don’t walk away."
In the circumstances, it sounded like it might capture Mr. Obama’s own sentiments about the young supporters who have promised to caucus for the first time on Thursday, and upon whom so many of his hopes depend.