Hillary Clinton began one of her last appeals to Iowa voters by lifting Barack Obama’s signature line.
“We are fired up and we are ready to go,” she said in the Starlight Building of Davenport’s Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. Later in her speech, she talked about “hopeful, hopeful programs for the future.”
Whether the imitation was a direct expression of faltering confidence or merely a fatigue-induced slip-up, even some of her genuine admirers in the crowd couldn’t help but notice that things felt a little flat.
“It was kind of a sad contrast,” said Owen Rogal, a 59-year-old English teacher at St. Ambrose University, who had seen Obama speak that morning. “He’s got people walking around in ‘fired up’ t-shirts and I sort of felt he was my high school football coach. He elicited a much more visceral response.”
Rogal categorized himself as still deeply undecided between the Democratic front-runners and said his final choice would wait to the very last minute.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is engaged in some rapid expectations-lowering, and aides have already begun talking up their standing in New Hampshire. By contrast, the Obama campaign, which received very good news from a recent, if contested, Des Moines Register poll, is officially giddy.
It was a distinctly celebratory atmosphere at the Des Moines high school where Obama on Wednesday night during last big pre-caucus rally. Obama stood on a stage in front of nearly 2,000 people, talking about his candidacy as a “destiny that we would not forfeit.” He needled the critics who doubted him, saying, “Iowa 10 months later–you have vindicated our faith.” The whole time he spoke his staffers hugged one another and pumped their fists.
“I feel good about where we are,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political advisor, as he stood on the sidelines while his candidate bathed in the “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma,” chants from the crowd. “I always said it’s a sequential process, it begins in Iowa, runs through New Hampshire, and we feel good about what is going on in Iowa. And we feel good about what we are building in New Hampshire. And we feel good about the fundamental strength of our message. And we can see now why.”
Axelrod also took a shot at Clinton pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn, who has spun furiously over the last two days to refute the notion that things were getting away from his candidate.
“Mark Penn wrote a book called ‘Microtrends,’” Axelrod said. “But there are also macrotrends, and sometimes when the mood in the country is one of change it is hard to turn that around.”
Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe, too, pretty much dispensed with the exercise of trying lower expectations. He said that the momentum the campaign had built in Iowa would carry straight through to New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 8.
“We think we have momentum in New Hampshire,” said Plouffe. “I think anything from neutral to momentum is going to provide us with a good outcome in New Hampshire. All I know is that if the New Hampshire primary were held tonight, we’d win.”
The buzz surrounding Obama had clearly drawn the attention of the media elite Wednesday night. The New York Times alone was represented at the Hoover high school event by its editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, columnists Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, David Brooks, and reporters Adam Nagourney, Jeff Zeleny, Jodi Kantor, David Kirkpatrick and Cate Doty. While the national media’s impact was negligible at best in the closing days of the caucus, it could still make its influence felt in the following primary states.
The immediate concern of the Obama campaign, however, was getting its vote out. At his event at the Hoover High School, a good chunk of his supporters looked like they had only recently graduated. (Clinton’s backers are from traditional more reliable caucus-going demographics: they tend to be middle-aged or older, wear Christmas-y sweaters and even lean on walkers, an unmistakable youthfulness imbued the gym at Obama’s event.)
Whether the young people who so boisterously support Obama actually caucus remains an unknown variable, and the Obama campaign is constantly reminded about all the similar, but ultimately ineffective, fervor surrounding Howard Dean four years ago.
“A lot of people who are showing up are independents or younger voters,” Plouffe said. But he argued that there was a major difference with the Dean campaign: “We have just been rigorous about organizing.”
After Obama finished his speech with a perfect right-angle bow and a yell of “I love you guys,” Obama staffers frantically tried to get people to sign caucus cards.