By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 9, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 8 -- Oprah Winfrey put her star power behind Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday, telling a rapt audience of thousands that she is joining the fight for the White House because she is "so tired" of the status quo in Washington.
"You know I've never done this before and it feels like I'm out of my pew," Winfrey told the crowd. "I'm nervous."
Without mentioning Obama's chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), by name, Winfrey made a vigorous case against her. Winfrey said she is concerned that "if we continued to do the same things over and over and over again, I know that you get the same results."
The popular talk-show host's dramatic appearance at a packed arena overlooking the state Capitol -- her first on behalf of a presidential candidate -- helped underscore the high stakes in the nation's first caucuses, scheduled for Jan. 3. Running neck-and-neck in the polls here and unable to predict how voters will react to sharp clashes close to the holidays, Clinton and Obama (D-Ill.) are campaigning furiously, with an emphasis on female voters.
Clinging to her role as the national front-runner, Clinton scrambled to match the moment with her own advocates, bringing in both her elderly mother and her daughter, Chelsea, to campaign with her for the first time. Clinton struck a low-key note, all but conceding that Obama's high-wattage events would dominate the weekend news, and continued her efforts to get Iowans to turn out for her on caucus day.
"I always think it's better to go to the caucuses with a buddy. Today, I've got some buddies with me," Clinton told an audience in introducing her family.
The Obama campaign noticeably slowed in the days before Winfrey's speech as it prepared for the event. Taking the stage in Des Moines accompanied by the candidate's wife, Michelle, Winfrey initially appeared nervous, and clutched a sheaf of papers as she spoke. But she quickly warmed to the crowd, her voice booming through the hall as she said that "this is not a time for any of us to shrink away from a new, bold path for our country."
Obama appeared last, and, describing Winfrey as "someone who moves an entire nation" acknowledged that he was not the main attraction of the day. Winfrey, beginning a three-day swing through Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire for Obama, shifted in her seat nervously as the candidate piled on praise. "This is a wonderful person. We love her. I am grateful for her being here," he said, before turning toward his guest and adding, "She's embarrassed."
Polls show the top three Democrats -- Obama, Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- bunched closely at the front of the pack in Iowa. A central pivot point in the race, especially between Clinton and Obama, has been whether Democratic voters are looking for change or experience. Winfrey repeatedly proclaimed Obama as the only true change agent in the contest, discounting the Clinton campaign's argument that the former first lady represents both change and the experience needed to implement it.
"Experience in the hallways of government isn't as important to me as experience on the pathway of life," Winfrey said. "I challenge you to see through those people who try and convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.," Winfrey told the crowd estimated at more than 18,000.
"What we need is, we need a new way of doing business in Washington, D.C., and in the world," Winfrey said. "You know, I am so tired. I'm tired of politics as usual. That's why you seldom see politicians on my show -- because I only have an hour."
Winfrey said she has voted for as many Republicans as Democrats, declaring that her support for Obama is not about partisan politics. The Clinton campaign played down the significance of the moment and declined, as it has since Winfrey's decision to back Obama was first announced, to offer any direct rebuttals.
The crowd responded to Winfrey enthusiastically when she alluded to Obama's opposition. "We the people can see through all that rhetoric," Winfrey said. "We recognize that the amount of time that you've spent in Washington means nothing unless you're accountable for the judgments you made with the time you had.
"We need good judgment," she continued. "We need Barack Obama."
People began arriving hours before Winfrey's 3:30 p.m. appearance; about 23,000 tickets were dispensed, and attendees weathered subfreezing temperatures and a wintry mix of snow and ice to make it to Hy-Vee Hall.
Clinton's counterprogramming included three small-scale events scattered outside Des Moines. At a stop Saturday morning in Winterset, about 100 people gathered in a chilly warehouse at the local airport, where Clinton addressed health care, veterans' benefits and organic farming. Her daughter and mother sat off to the side of the stage, smiling and clapping with the crowd. Neither spoke, although Chelsea Clinton worked the crowd energetically afterward with a gracious "Hi, thank you for coming," while urging people to support Clinton on Jan. 3. Clinton ignored questions about the Winfrey event, turning away from the microphones to shake hands along the rope line.
It was far removed from the celebrity buzz generated by Winfrey, although Bea Leonard's 8-year-old grandson Spencer was giddy, having secured autographs from each of the three women on a baseball he had brought along. "She makes such a good impression," Leonard said, as Clinton carefully inscribed her name with a blue felt pen. But she said she is not ready to commit just yet. She also likes New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Heidi Reimer, who works in an eyeglass factory in Afton, thought about driving into Des Moines for the Obama event but, worried about icy roads, took in the event here instead. "I'm kind of going a little more toward her," she said, gesturing toward Clinton. But the Winfrey factor gives Reimer pause. "I think it will make a difference," she said.
Maureen McGarry of West Des Moines, a political independent who is shopping both sides for a 2008 candidate, said she heard about Obama's stirring speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner last month, and was disappointed that he did not deliver a repeat performance Saturday. Instead, Obama offered an abbreviated version of his stump speech.
"I was curious about Barack's message, that's why I got the tickets," McGarry said. "I thought there would be more." She came away impressed with Winfrey, and a little surprised at the force with which she delivered her endorsement." I love Oprah, but today was about finding out more" about Obama, she said. Her conclusion: "He's very charismatic."
Saralyn Alderman, 58, who drove from Ames for the event with her daughter and a group of friends, said she has followed Obama's career since he was elected to the Senate in 2004. She has never attended a caucus, but said she is committed to showing up this year. She is a big Winfrey fan, but said the candidate's appeal was not lost in the glare.
"It got a lot of people here, which is good," she said of the talk-show host's appearance. "But the ones I know came because of him."