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Obama Shines In Iowa

Barack Obama's speech at tonight's Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa took him back to the roots of his stardom. Crucially, the setting was  similar to that of the 2004 Democratic national convention, where Obama's keynote speech changed his destiny: Obama appeared onstage alone, before a roaring auditorium crowd, delivering an oratorically ambitious speech. It was a far cry from the candidate debates, with their silly questions and Mike Gravels, which have diminished Obama--or his sometimes lackluster town hall meetings with voters. Instead, Obama showed off his star power again and, for me at least, refreshed the logic of his call for "change that we can believe in."

Obama was all the more dramatic because he offered one of his sharpest critiques of Hillary Clinton to date. He went on something of a tear against Clintonism and the too-clever-by-half politics of what he called "Washington textbook campaigns." "Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do it," Obama said--obviously referring to Hillary's debate performance last week. Without naming Hillary, he also ripped the practice of "telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear" and relying on "triangulating and poll driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us. If we are really serious about winning this election, then we can't live in fear of losing." The Democratic Party, he said, has been best "when we led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction." One can take some issue here (isn't it reasonable to worry about saying things that give "Mitt or Rudy" easy avenues for attack?). But to see Obama in his grandiose element, looking poised and confident, feeding off the energy of the surging crowd, was an important reminder of why he's made it so far so fast. 

Obama also had the advantage of speaking last, giving his appearance an extra air of crescendo. He followed a strong performance by Hillary Clinton, but one that I suspect won't be long remembered. Hillary's speech featured a vow to "turn up the heat" on the Republican machine--expressed by a call-and-response with the crowd that seemed slightly labored to me, and also far less vigorous than the ferociously energetic "Fired Up! Ready to go!" chanting of Obama's supporters earlier in the night. Hillary did make an effective effort to rise above the fray of her rivals' attacks however, telling the audience, "I know how easy it is in a campaign to get distracted, to focus on who's up and who's down, and who said what about whom. But that’s not what this election is about. This election is about [Americans]… who feel invisible in their own country." Later she added, "I am not interested in attacking my opponents. I am interested in attacking the problems of America. We should be turning up the heat on the Republicans." This is Hillary's way of reinforcing the fractured frame of her as inevitable nominee facing the larger task of fighting the GOP. It's also an effort to neutralize the attacks of her rivals by making them seem like a distraction from the real issues. (Once again, this sounds like Mark Penn's thinking--voters want substance, not process and personality.)

One puzzle was Hillary's exceedingly slow and deliberate presentation: She sounded as though she were addressing someone who speaks shaky English, a bit in the style of the circa-2000 Al Gore. (Update: Garance was also puzzled, and adds that Hillary "veer[ed] between a soft-spoken, almost transquilized tone and grating crescendos that, regretably, can only be described as shrill." Correct.)

(A footnote: Hillary worked in a crack about how Republican fiscal policies have "turned China into our banker." This "yellow-peril" line has Bill's fingerprints all over it: In his speech at the 2004 convention he said, "If you believe it is good policy to pay for my tax cuts with the Social Security checks of working men and women and borrowed money from China and Japan, you should vote for them. If not, John Kerry's your man.")

John Edwards gave a familiar speech about his humble rural origins, the evil power of lobbyists and, striking a similar chord to Obama, the need for Democrats "to stand up as a party with some backbone and some strength, and to not back down from what we believe in." Most interesting, perhaps, Edwards also riffed on how George W. Bush has "destroyed" the "trust relationship" between Americans and their president. "You're in a place to judge who is trustworthy, who is honest, who is sincere, who can restore that trust relationship," Edwards said. This reminded me of Bush's famous promise to restore honor and decency to the Oval Office--only this time it was clearly Hillary Clinton's honor at issue and not Bill's.

I doubt any of the other three candidates changed any minds tonight. Chris Dodd was particularly senatorial and lackluster, see below re: Richardson, and although Joe Biden delivered dramatically grave remarks summed up here, they seemed to yield extremely wan applause.

Prior to tonight's dinner there was much chatter about how the event might reshape the Democratic race. I didn't see anything like that. If I had to declare a winner it would definitely be Obama, who made me think anew about his potential as a nominee who can excite voters. But my main conclusion is that these candidates have all established their basic rationales and critiques, ones unlikely to change much between now and January 3. From here it's an endurance test, a struggle to avoid unforced errors--and, above all, a furious ground game to get your damn people to the caucuses.

--Michael Crowley