A nostalgic Obama returns to Iowa for the end of his last campaign

The end, for President Obama, came in Iowa.

Ohio may prove to be the most important state in the 2012 election. But on Monday, the president closed his final campaign with a rally in the Hawkeye State, returning one last time as a candidate to the place that launched his improbable run to the White House.

The decision to bid farewell to the campaign trail with a nighttime appearance in Des Moines’s historic East Village was as symbolic as it was strategic.

Obama is expected to have spent more than $1 billion on his campaign for reelection. He held 101 rallies. His final day included events in Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio.

But the president has a special fondness for Iowa, where he upset Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic caucuses in January 2008. First lady Michelle Obama and rock icon Bruce Springsteen joined him Monday as he made his last appeal to voters outside the one-story brick building on Locust Street that housed his first field office for the 2008 campaign. It is now a church.

Obama took the stage at 10 p.m., embracing his wife. He told the crowd of 20,000, lined up in the cold for blocks: “I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote. To ask for you to help us finish what we started, because this is where our movement for change began. Right here.”

As Election Day drew near, Obama and his team of longtime advisers grew increasingly nostalgic. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki appeared at a rally in Cincinnati sporting a faded black Obama ’08 baseball cap. Campaign adviser David Axelrod and White House adviser David Plouffe, also traveling with Obama, were wearing matching black Obama ’08 fleece pullovers Monday. And White House speechwriters Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes, who stumped with him four years ago, let their facial hair grow, vowing to shave only after the president had won his final campaign.

Aides said Obama, too, has reflected on the moment and how far he has come — win or lose.

The president is “well aware this is his last campaign,” Axelrod said. As Obama took the stage before 18,000 in Madison, the senior adviser added: “I just said to the president this is like the end of a long-running series, and all the characters are coming back to be here. This has been a special journey.”

Old friends Martin Nesbitt and Michael Ramos have traveled with the president this week on Air Force One. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former campaign and White House spokesman, was with him on the final day. So was Reggie Love, the president’s personal aide during the 2008 campaign and the first three years of his term.

“Nobody gave us a chance to win the nomination,” Plouffe said, reflecting on the first campaign. Monday night was “profoundly emotional.”

Gibbs, now a private communications consultant advising the campaign, recalled the early days in 2007 when he forced Obama, then a senator from Illinois, to make 30 calls a day to Iowa officials, including high school student organizers. One girl told Obama, who was calling from an airplane, that she was too busy in yearbook class and would call him back.

“There were certain indignities for running for president back then,” Axelrod said with a chuckle.

Much has changed since Jan. 3, 2008, when the young senator stood in front of supporters in Des Moines and vowed that someday, they would look back at his caucus victory as a “defining moment in history.”

He had won the longest and most intense caucus campaign in history, besting Clinton after a year-long struggle that boosted turnout on voting day to 239,000, far above the 124,000 who participated in 2004. Obama took 38 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 29.5 percent. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) finished second with 29.8 percent.

“You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that has consumed Washington,” Obama said during his victory remarks then. “We are choosing hope over fear; we’re choosing unity over division and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.”

Nearly five years later, however, even the president acknowledges that his time in office has been defined by sharply partisan battles with Republicans in Congress. The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s most influential newspaper, endorsed Obama four years ago but stunned the president almost two weeks ago by throwing its support behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Obama “rocketed to the presidency from relative obscurity with a theme of hope and change,” the newspaper said in its editorial. “A different reality has marked his presidency.”

State polls show Obama maintaining an advantage of about five percentage points, but Romney remains within striking distance. The GOP nominee appeared in the state Sunday with his own appeal to anxious residents.

Obama, aware that even his supporters are “frustrated sometimes with the pace of change,” has altered his closing appeal to emphasize that he has the scars — and gray hair — to testify to the battles he’s fought with his Republican foes in Congress.

“I’m frustrated too, sometimes,” he said Sunday in New Hampshire. “But you know where I stand. You know what I believe. You know I tell the truth. And you know that I will fight for you and your families every single day, as hard as I know how.”

After Des Moines, Obama was scheduled to return to his home town, Chicago, where he will wait with his family Tuesday for results to come in. “It’s safe to say that all Election Day traditions will be observed,” Axelrod said.

Love is organizing the president’s traditional Election Day pickup basketball game.

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