Obama’s Gains Show Volatility Of Iowa Contest

By: Wall Street Journal


DES MOINES, Iowa — A month before Iowa holds the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, a newly energized Sen. Barack Obama has opened a narrow lead here, but many Iowans in both parties say they could change their minds in the next 30 days about which candidate to support.

Mr. Obama’s rising popularity was fueled by a fiery speech three weeks ago in which he vowed to turn away from the partisan battles of the Clinton-Bush years. That, plus the surprising strength of his Iowa ground organization, is galvanizing his campaign.

Over the weekend, the Des Moines Register released a poll showing Sen. Obama was the choice of 28% of Iowa Democrats likely to attend the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, up from 22% in the newspaper’s October poll. That compares with 25% for the former Iowa front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, down from her previous 29%. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, once the leader here, held steady at 23%. Given the margin of error, the race is almost a three-way dead heat.

But as critical to the outcome is the fact that over half the state’s voters who have a preferred candidate say they may end up caucusing for someone else.

Among Republicans, onetime dark horse Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has raced past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, amid signs he is picking up the support of Christian conservatives. Mr. Huckabee was the choice of 29% of likely Republican caucus attendees in the Register poll, up 17 points from October. Mr. Romney, who has spent more time and millions of dollars on television ads here, slipped five points to 24%. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has focused less on this rural state, held at 13%.

About six in 10 voters say they could switch allegiances before caucus night. Mr. Romney, worried about his slippage and its possible connection to his Mormon faith, has decided to speak Thursday about religion — much like Roman Catholic John Kennedy did in the 1960 race — at the first President Bush’s library in Texas.

The volatility in both the Republican and Democratic races reflects some of the usual shifting that occurs as the early caucuses and primaries approach. Most voters are just tuning in, and underdogs keen to overtake the front-runners are ratcheting up their attacks.

Since late October, Sen. Clinton has been the target of fellow Democrats’ barbs about her stances on Iraq and Iran, as well as her character and her candor. The attacks were bound to raise doubts with voters and erode her lead. Moreover, Mr. Obama, with the large sums of money he has raised, has had the resources to more than match Sen. Clinton in a state that requires massive statewide organizing, as well as to surpass her in television advertising.

The top Republicans believe they could recover from a loss in Iowa with a win in friendlier states. Messrs. Romney, Giuliani and McCain, for example, all are vying to win New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on Jan. 8. An Iowa victory might not translate into momentum for Mr. Huckabee, a Southerner, in that New England state.

Mr. Romney believes he will benefit from New Hampshire’s proximity to his home state of Massachusetts, Mr. McCain from his strong New Hampshire showing in 2000 and Mr Giuliani from his recently stepped-up television advertising there. Mr. Giuliani is also counting on wins in big, less conservative states like California that hold votes Feb. 5, though that might be too late, which is why he has bolstered his New Hampshire campaign.

Among Democrats, however, it has long been widely believed that a decisive win for Sen. Clinton could, in effect, crown her as the nominee. Not only has she long led her rivals in national polls by double digits, but Iowa had long stood as the only early voting state where she wasn’t far ahead, though her margin has tightened in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Defeat here, or even an unimpressive win, could make Sen. Clinton vulnerable to a single rival — most bets are on Sen. Obama — who could consolidate the anti-Clinton Democratic vote.

A key turning point in the Iowa race came earlier this month when the six major candidates gathered to speak at the Iowa Democratic Party’s traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinner before a raucous crowd of 9,000 partisan Democrats.

All summer, Sen. Obama hadn’t been delivering up to expectations. Following the announcement of his candidacy, he spent the next several months stagnating in the polls, being bested by Sen. Clinton in Democratic debates and sometimes seeming to fall flat on the stump. His own supporters wondered why he lost his passion. His public appearances were dominated by dry policy speeches, some that lasted nearly an hour.

“It was so painful,” says one person with the campaign. “I wanted to go up and say, ‘Thanks a lot, you can stop now.’”

Sen. Obama had essentially tied his own hands by promising a “new politics” that broke with the warring and mudslinging of recent years. Each time he took a jab at Sen. Clinton, her camp would suggest, “So much for the new politics.”

As the Iowa contest neared, donors and supporters prodded Sen. Obama to be more aggressive. In the weeks before the big dinner, Sen. Obama shut himself off with only his legal pad to write much of a new speech himself. He honed it during a grinding campaign bus tour of southern Iowa.

The night of the dinner, he delivered a call for unity that tweaked Sen. Clinton as a polarizing figure, without naming her. “America, our moment is now,” Sen. Obama thundered. “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be the president of the United States of America.”

Rival campaign operatives sat there stone-faced. But some attendees put down their signs and thunder sticks for other candidates, jumped to their feet to cheer him on and grabbed Obama campaign materials as they streamed out of the arena.

“Barack found his voice” that night, says Gordon Fischer, a longtime Iowa Democratic leader who recently decided to support Sen. Obama. “That’s when the man and the moment met.”

Other campaign officials, even as they said Sen. Obama came across as too “hot,” conceded him victory. Sen. Obama agreed. “We nailed it,” he whispered to an adviser as he left the stage. His wife, Michelle, known as one of his toughest critics, ran to embrace him in the holding room.

Back on the campaign trail in Iowa, the “conversion rate” — undecided voters who signed up to support him after an event — doubled almost overnight, according to his campaign. One Democratic official noticed more cars parked at his Des Moines headquarters. More good publicity came last week when talk-show host Oprah Winfrey committed to campaign for him for two days in Iowa as well as New Hampshire and South Carolina.

By all accounts, Sen. Obama’s ground force of several hundred staff and volunteers is the largest among the candidates, with 37 field offices to share the job of getting supporters to the state’s 1,784 precinct caucuses. And his organizers say they are reaping the rewards of the buzz following the Jefferson-Jackson speech.

Nancy Gaub recently saw Sen. Obama in a small town in southern Iowa. “I’m solid for [John] Edwards,” Ms. Gaub said just before Sen. Obama began his speech. Afterward she declared: “I’m embarrassed to say this — and I know you’re not supposed to make snap decisions about these things — but I think I’m for Obama now.”

The shifting dynamic is rattling the Clinton campaign. But no one discounts the Clinton machine in Iowa. Its driver is Teresa Vilmain, an Iowa native who is widely considered among the best organizers in the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton joined his wife at a candidates’ forum on minority issues here Saturday, while stumping separately for her in Iowa. And the campaign chartered a plane over the weekend, as snow and rain hindered travel, so reporters could come along yesterday and today for “Take Your Buddy to Caucus” rallies in five cities.

The Clinton campaign likewise has been growing since a jobs’ fair it held in late October in Arlington, Va. Past Clinton administration figures have been enlisted to help phone potential voters and canvass them in neighborhoods. Just as Obama camp’s is working feverishly to train young people on how to caucus, the Clinton campaign is equally determined to turn out more older women. That group strongly favors Sen. Clinton, polls show, but Sen. Obama and his wife are having some success in their own efforts to appeal to women.

Sen. Clinton, after months of trying to stay above the fray, is mounting a sustained assault on Sen. Obama’s claims that his health-care plan would provide universal coverage. Health care is the biggest issue among Democratic voters nationwide, next to the war in Iraq, but especially in Iowa, where caucus-goers are disproportionately older Americans.

The Clinton war room was on red alert yesterday. On CBS News’”Face the Nation,” Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson challenged Sen. Obama to shut down his Senate political-action committee called Hopefund, calling it a “slush fund” to steer donations to politicians in Iowa and other early voting states. The Clinton camp alleged use of the PAC violated federal election law, and noted some of its funding came from lobbyists — contradicting Sen. Obama’s vow as a presidential candidate to reject lobbyists’ money.

Sen. Obama dismissed the allegations.

The Clinton campaign also challenged Sen. Obama’s comment yesterday that he had never harbored presidential ambitions, unlike others, by which he implied Sen. Clinton; its evidence included a press report of an essay Sen. Obama wrote in kindergarten.

For Mr. Edwards, a poor showing would be fatal. Iowa was to be his springboard. He has tended a base of support since his surprise second-place showing in the 2004 caucuses, which led to him becoming the running mate to the winner and ultimate nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Though Mr. Edwards is behind in the polls and is being outspent by Sens. Clinton and Obama, he may nonetheless hold a certain advantage. His core supporters, advisers say, include far more repeat caucus-goers, so-called “chronics,” who are familiar with the time investment that comes with voting there.

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com, Monica Langley at monica.langley@wsj.com and Christopher Cooper at christopher.cooper@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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