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The Closer

No presidential candidate inspires more anxiety in reporters than Barack Obama. This has nothing to do with any shortcoming on Obama’s part. He is, if anything, unfailingly charming in person--quick with a subversive crack, more at ease with the press than most of his rivals.

The source of the problem is, rather, one of Obama’s greatest assets: his gifts as a speaker. If you’re on the Edwards or Giuliani beat, to say nothing of Clinton or Romney, you’d prefer to wake up on time and show up at the right place. But it would hardly be the end of the world if you didn’t. All of these candidates perform more or less the same adequate version of their stump speech from stop to stop.

Obama, too, is often only adequate--even downright lousy. But there’s a catch: With Obama, you never know when, in the span of a 30-minute speech, he’s going to achieve some near-religious state of grace. This is the speech you live in constant terror of missing—the kind of speech people later refer to by the town where it took place. Months from now, when someone finds out you cover the campaign, they may ask: Were you there for Vinton or Allison or Clarion? And all you’ll be able to do is mumble something about a wrong turn off Highway 3.

Rarely has this weighed more heavily on reporters’ minds than during the past few weeks, when Obama has recovered from a prolonged malaise. “There were periods of time in the dog days of summer where . . . I wasn’t always firing on all cylinders,” he told me on a recent swing through Iowa. “From the moment we announced, it was nonstop and relentless. I felt that there would be a little more of off-Broadway before you got on Broadway.”

The last stop of the trip, a community college in Fort Dodge, seemed to hold the promise of something special. Hundreds of people, many of them college-age, had crammed into a large industrial workshop to hear Obama speak. You could feel the youthful energy. On top of that, Obama has a reputation for closing well. His 2004 Senate primary campaign puttered along for months before finally cohering a few weeks from Election Day. Aides say he often gets better as the day goes on, too--a point underscored by his now-legendary Jefferson-Jackson speech earlier this month, which didn’t start till after eleven.

Before long, Obama had begun a riff about the Republicans he meets while campaigning, and he was clearly enjoying himself. “They say, ‘Barack, I’m a Republican, but I support you.’ ” He recited the line in a conspiratorial whisper. Then came the punchline: “I say, ‘Thank you.’ ” He paused for a beat. “ ‘Why are we whispering?’ ” This brought applause and laughter.

After the speech, I interviewed Obama in a classroom at the back of the workshop. Outside the room, old cars dangled from the ceiling on metal chains and volunteers rushed to fold chairs. I wanted to know if Obama ever felt crushed by the enormous expectations people brought to these events. “It was funny,” he said. “Right before the J-J dinner--who was that reporter who asked me, ‘Do you feel like you still have the magic of the 2004 convention?’ I was sort of like, ‘Wow.’ ” Obama seemed amused at the suggestion that he was washed up at 46. “I think right now, we’re feeling pretty good,” he continued. “I think the people here felt that I was speaking to them and, more importantly, that they were also getting a chanceto engage with me in a way that was real.”

I had come to Iowa to answer what’s shaping up to be the central question of the campaign: Can a young, African American senator from Chicago win over the blue-collar voters who will, in all likelihood, determine the outcome of the caucuses? Most of the people I’d seen cheering through two days of events had looked working-class to my eyes. On the other hand, polls have consistently shown Obama trailing Hillary Clinton among this demographic, albeit by a diminishing margin.

Beyond their sheer numbers--between one-quarter and one-third of likely caucus-goers--blue-collar voters take on added importance in Iowa because of the caucuses’ convoluted mechanics. As any Iowa veteran will remind you, the caucus isn’t a straight-up vote but a delegate contest. On caucus night, each of almost 1,800 precincts awards delegates and the candidate with the most delegates wins. What makes the process less than intuitive is that the state party allocates delegates according to the number of Democratic votes cast in each precinct during two previous statewide elections. So, for example, a populous precinct that split 50–50 could end up with fewer delegates than a smaller precinct that went 70–30 for Democrats.

As a result, blue-collar areas offer a kind of double bonus: First, they’re somewhat more Democratic than affluent areas (there are few latte-liberal enclaves in Iowa), meaning they receive a disproportionate number of delegates. Second, blue-collar voters don’t turn out as heavily as affluent voters, meaning it takes fewer votes to win a precinct’s delegates. The upshot is that concentrating your support in blue-collar areas can produce a delegate tally several percentage points higher than your share of actual votes. “In ’88, they counted 90 percent of the raw vote, and we beat [Illinois Senator Paul] Simon by a percentage point,” says Steve Murphy, a longtime aide to Dick Gephardt who now works for Bill Richardson. “But we ended up beating him by four points with the weighting. If Clinton is stronger in blue-collar areas, she will get a bump. Nobody polls for that.”

The Clinton campaign has worked scrupulously to paint Obama as a liberal elitist out of touch with working-class values. (“What, the arugula candidate?” one Clinton aide quipped when I broached the subject.) But history offers hints that Obama can hold his own among these voters. Obama carried several white-ethnic wards and blue-collar suburbs during his March 2004 U.S. Senate primary. Skeptics point out that one of Obama’s main opponents, a self-funded millionaire named Blair Hull, melted down in the final weeks of the campaign amid reports he’d abused his ex-wife. But, even so, Obama still had to best Dan Hynes, the state’s sitting comptroller and the scion of a prominent political family. More importantly, Hull didn’t self-destruct until late February, and tracking polls from his campaign showed Obama surging among white working-class Chicagoans by the middle of the month. Clearly, something about Obama had made a difference, too.

Earlier this month, I spoke with a Chicago alderman named Brian Doherty, who represents the 41st Ward on the city’s far northwest side. Doherty’s ward is almost 90 percent white. His constituents are primarily second- and third-generation ethnics, he told me, many of them police and firemen. Back in the 1980s, the 41st was a seat of opposition to Harold Washington, the first black man elected mayor of Chicago. It was later one of George W. Bush’s best-performing wards in the city.

The first words out of Doherty’s mouth when I asked about Obama’s narrow plurality in the 41st were: “Yeah, I was a little surprised myself.” He eventually settled on a largely negative explanation: His constituents had taken Obama’s measure and deemed him unthreatening. “They wouldn’t support a radical—someone extremely liberal, progressive, whatever term you want to use”—a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton, for example. “They would come out in droves to vote against them.”

Obama no doubt benefits from being “unthreatening.” But that probably sells both him and voters short. As with liberals, many working-class voters may actually relish the chance to support an impressive black candidate.

Preston Daniels, an African American who served two terms as mayor of Des Moines beginning in the late ’90s, hinted at this phenomenon during a recent conversation. Daniels recalled how he was putting up yard signs one day on the working-class East Side—his geographic base—when a pickup truck pulled up. “Hey, come over here. You’re that guy right there,” said the driver, pointing to one of the signs. Daniels’s eyes drifted to the Confederate flag on the truck’s license plate, and he didn’t budge. The man tried again: “Hey, I want one of those signs. I want you to come over and put it in my yard just like you’re doing here.” Daniels finally acceded—to his unexpected benefit. The man had been completely starstruck. By the end of the afternoon, he’d summoned several dozen friends and neighbors to his home, where he and Daniels sat drinking beer. Daniels says he must have given away 35 signs that day.

I had a similar, if less traumatic, experience after an Obama event in Marion, where I met a 60-ish retiree who had worked as a stock handler for a local manufacturer. “People say we’re not ready for a colored president,” she told me. “But we have colored people everywhere--senators, Congressmen, lawyers. What’s that got to do with it?” There is still a certain type of Democratic voter who uses phrases like, “I’m not racist, but . . .” One can imagine whom the “but” refers to. Obama is the “not racist” part.

Actually, Brian Doherty had cited one affirmative reason for Obama’s performance in his ward: It was the candidate’s relentless unity-speak. “That sells pretty well here,” Doherty said. “Chicago was such a strong Democratic city throughout the machine days. But Democrats in my area are very conservative.” This did not entirely come as news to me. I’d heard the same thing back in 2004, when I’d followed Obama to a union event in blue-collar Joliet, Illinois. And I would hear working-class voters repeat the point at event after event across Iowa. Tom Hockensmith, an Obama supporter and former union negotiator who now represents Des Moines’s East Side as a county supervisor, told me he was looking for a candidate who could “work with people on both sides of the aisle.”

This is somewhat at odds with the view of blue-collar voters that prevails in Washington. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein wrote what may be the most influential article of the campaign, at least among journalists. In it, Brownstein argued that Democratic nomination fights have traditionally pitted a “warrior” against a “priest.” The warriors talk about “kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat,” whether partisan or otherwise. They sell themselves as experienced doers rather than eloquent speakers, and they traditionally appeal to blue-collar voters. The priests, by contrast, are more detached and intellectual. They downplay concrete programs in favor of lofty reformist rhetoric. They appeal to liberals and intellectuals. Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale were all warriors. The priesthood has included Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, and Bill Bradley.

As early as March, Brownstein saw the 2008 nomination race reflecting this traditional warrior-priest divide, with Clinton as the warrior (she’d just flayed Bush in a high-profile speech) and Obama as the priest. For Obama, he argued, this should have been alarming: At least in recent decades, priests have never won.

But, in retrospect, Brownstein and the many pundits (including me) who echoed his analysis may have overstated the case: While it’s true that blue-collar voters prefer candidates who address their daily concerns rather than those who wallow in airy abstractions, today these voters are actually less, not more, interested in partisan combat than affluent liberals. Thanks to the rise of social issues and foreign policy as divides between the parties (as opposed to economics alone), working-class voters are now far more likely to vote Republican than urban, college-educated liberals. The liberals, by contrast, are increasingly isolated: They read the same magazines and blogs and watch the same news programs as the people they live and work with.

Consider some numbers from a recent Pew Research Center poll. While affluent, college-educated Democrats and working-class Democrats both have low opinions of Bush, the breadth of these views varies significantly. Ninety-four percent of affluent Democrats disapprove of Bush, while only 80 percent of working-class Democrats do.

Viewed this way, the Obama-Clinton-John Edwards competition over blue-collar voters is much more of a toss-up than you’d expect. Hillary benefits from her reputation as an experienced Washington hand who keeps the needs of working-class voters front and center; Obama gets points for his promise to unite Democrats and Republicans; Edwards taps the residual loyalty of the blue-collar Democrats who supported him in 2004. And, indeed, the data bear this out. Recent Iowa polls show the three candidates basically tied among working-class voters under 65.

To pull even among the group as a whole, Obama has worked to shed what Brownstein calls his “wine track” image and appeal more explicitly to the “beer track.” “I’m not interested in good government for the sake of good government,” he told me. “[T]here were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out. . . . Maybe the lace-curtain crowd didn’t like it, but it really helped in terms of upward mobility. That’s not true anymore. When I say I want to change politics, it’s precisely because I want to make sure people have health care . . . that they can send their kids to college.”

In September, Obama unveiled a proposal to make the first $50,000 of income tax-free for seniors. In recent months, he’s begun his stump speech with a story about his days as an organizer in Chicago, where he labored on behalf of laid-off steelworkers. Even his famous “Fired up/ready to go” story--about a trip to remote Greenwood, South Carolina, where he picked up the chant from an elderly city councilwoman--has undergone subtle alteration. Obama typically says he must have had a glass of wine before agreeing to visit Greenwood. But, at a union-heavy event in Cedar Falls, I noticed that the universe of possible culprits had expanded. Suddenly it was “a glass of wine or a beer.”

Of course, just because a group of voters values bipartisanship doesn’t mean they respect weakness. In this respect, Obama has been eclipsed by the warrior Clinton for much of the race. “He just looks and feels soft,” a rival strategist (not part of the Clinton campaign) told me last month. “Most Americans see that as disqualifying.”

Perhaps the best way to think about Obama on this front isn’t “wine track” versus “beer track,” but ego versus power. Presidential candidates are usually motivated on some level by idealism. But, unless you’re a saint, it’s too hard to survive the punishing, day-in/day-out grind of a campaign without another motivating force. For most candidates, Hillary included, that comes down to some mix of ego and power-hunger.

But Obama doesn’t seem especially intoxicated by power. He’d just like you to buy into this brand called Barack Obama, which the presidency may enrich, but which may ultimately be more important to him than the presidency itself.

Understanding this feature of Obama’s personality can explain a lot about the campaign. For example, it immediately becomes clear why he often seems reluctant to attack. For one thing, launching an attack can make a politician look cheap and tacky, which is the opposite of how Obama wants to come off. More broadly, Obama’s not particularly interested in his opponents, period. By disposition, Obama prefers to put his own strengths at the center of his campaign; any time spent talking about opponents is less time spent talking about himself.

Having said that, it would be a mistake to assume that the ego-driven candidate is, in the end, any less willing to attack. The real difference is the circumstances. Clinton can seamlessly slip into attack mode whenever campaign tactics require it. For Obama, the attacks tend to come when his ego is challenged. At a press conference in Fort Dodge just before Obama’s last event of the trip, a reporter asked about a line from a Clinton economic speech earlier in the day. “There is one job we can’t afford on-the-job training for—that’s the job of our next president,” Clinton had said. Obama’s tart response: “My understanding was that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, so I don’t know exactly what experiences she’s claiming.”

Later, during our interview, I raised the toughness issue myself. In 2004, an aide had told me that several top advisers were encouraging Obama, who supported the death penalty in certain cases, to exploit the issue against his anti-death-penalty Republican opponent. Obama had adamantly rejected the advice. I asked why. “My own views on the death penalty are very complicated,” he said. “I’ve said that in theory I don’t object to the death penalty for heinous crimes--terrorism, mass murder, child-killers. But that, in its application, it’s been racially biased, highly unreliable, inconsistent. So for me to try to pretend that I was a cheerleader for the death penalty simply to score a political point, that wasn’t reflective of my views.” He smiled. “And I figured I was going to beat him by twenty points anyway.”

Back in 2004, the aide had offered the story as a testament to Obama’s character, and Obama was clearly proud of how he’d behaved. But, in the context of the current race, it also seemed to reinforce a widely perceived flaw--his refusal to sully himself by playing hardball. I asked if Obama worried about this second interpretation.

“This argument never makes sense to me,” he shot back. “If I lose, then I think it’s fine for people then to speculate that I don’t have the bloodlust. I think I’m going to win doing exactly what I’m doing.” Then he added: “The one thing I won’t tolerate is people trying to play that stuff on me. The one thing I hope people have become very clear about—and, if not, I will remind them—is I won’t be a punching bag for anybody. . . . If they come at me hard, I will come back at them harder.”