Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton Bring Star Power to Iowa
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
DES MOINES, Nov. 26 -- Both are legendary communicators, perhaps the two greatest in their generation. Both helped build an ethic of empathy, turning the public confession into a rite of passage. Both are world-renowned -- one for being a former president, the other for a TV show usually identified just by her first name.
And now, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey are set to square off, in Iowa, campaigning for their favorite candidates.
The looming showdown between Clinton (who arrives here on Tuesday to campaign for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) and Winfrey (who appears in two weeks to campaign for Sen. Barack Obama), besides marking a rare collision of talent and fame on the campaign trail, is a sign of just how competitive the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses have become, especially when it comes to attracting female voters.
"They are perfect closers for this campaign that is becoming a nail-biter," said Donna Brazile, a consultant to Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000 who is neutral in this race.
Winfrey's appearance, announced by the Obama campaign on Monday, is significant on several fronts. The talk show host had never endorsed a presidential candidate. More important, Winfrey -- ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful voices in public life, the host of the top-ranked television talk show for more than two decades with a track record of moving millions of books on her suggestion alone -- is arguably the only person capable of countering Hillary Clinton's most empathetic surrogate.
The Clinton campaign, which has been engaged in an increasingly nasty war of words with Obama, seemed almost respectful when asked about Winfrey's appearance. "We're fans, and we think it's great that she is participating in the process," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said. "Everyone has wonderful supporters. We are proud of ours, but at the end of the day voters will determine which candidate has the strength and experience to make change happen on Day One."
Eric Schultz, a spokesman for former senator John Edwards, who is in a three-way tie with Clinton and Obama in the caucuses here, said: "John Edwards's 80-page 'Plan to Build One America' may not show up on Oprah's Book Club anytime soon, but we think voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will value the specifics in that book just as much as a visit from any big celebrities."
But the Edwards campaign is not above sending its own celebrities in search of female voters. The campaign recently dispatched a group of women -- ranging from his daughter Cate and abortion rights activist Kate Michelman to singer Bonnie Raitt -- onto the trail, where his campaign frequently boasts of 1,500 named female supporters in Iowa alone.
Clinton has put gender at the center of her candidacy and almost always surrounds herself with women, both prominent and not, on the campaign trail; traveling here on Sunday, she put Christie Vilsack, the well-known wife of the former governor, in view of the cameras as she talked to reporters. On Monday, the campaign announced that Susan Lynch, the wife of New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, will be among her supporters.
She also has the support of the advocacy group Emily's List, which announced a statewide drive to turn out female voters for Clinton. The announcement asserted that, in 2004, "more than 80 percent of active Democratic women did not attend" the caucuses, and that so far this year, that same pocket of women -- the ones less likely to attend on caucus night -- "give the greatest margin of support" to Clinton.
That is in keeping with the Clinton campaign's view that it will perform well if it can turn out people, particularly women, who did not participate last time or who have never participated. Still, Obama is running about even in Iowa with Clinton among women, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. At the national level, Clinton has greater support from women.
Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife, is also planning swings through Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday, further proof that he is ceding no ground to Clinton when it comes to female voters.
The appearance of the former president comes on the heels of an increasingly heated debate over how much credit Clinton can claim for having served as first lady. In an interview with ABC that was slated to air Monday night, Obama made his most dismissive comments to date about Clinton's efforts to count those years as "experience."
"I think the fact of the matter is that Senator Clinton is claiming basically the entire eight years of the Clinton presidency as her own, except for the stuff that didn't work out, in which case she says she has nothing to do with it," Obama said. "There is no doubt that Bill Clinton had faith in her and consulted with her on issues, in the same way that I would consult with Michelle if there were issues," Obama said. "On the other hand, I don't think Michelle would claim that she is the best qualified person to be a United States senator by virtue of me talking to her on occasion about the work I've done."