By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 3, 2008
CORALVILLE, Iowa, Jan. 2
On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama decided to start the polling early.
"How many people are first-time caucusgoers?" he asked a boisterous and youthful crowd of 1,400 overflowing from a hotel ballroom here near the University of Iowa.
Nearly two-thirds raised their hands.
"There've been a lot of discussions among the pundits lately, because they don't think you're gonna show up," the candidate teased.
Boos from the crowd.
"Are you gonna prove them wrong?" he asked. Big cheer. "I can't hear you!" Bigger cheer. "Are you gonna show up for caucus or not?" Biggest cheer.
But at the student sign-in table outside the ballroom -- "Be awesome: Caucus for Obama!!!" urged the handwritten sign -- the numbers gave less cause for enthusiasm. Eighty-one students signed a list proclaiming themselves uncertain about caucusing or ineligible to vote. And how many filled out cards promising to attend Thursday's caucuses? A grand total of -- drumroll, please -- nine.
On Thursday night, America will finally have an answer to the question: Is Obama another Howard Dean, or can he win the nomination? Like Dean, he has challenged the Democratic establishment with a coalition of students and political independents. His candidacy, like Dean's, will collapse if they don't show up.
It is, in other words, a battle between the passion and the machine, between Hillary Clinton's establishment support and the superior enthusiasm of Obama's supporters. The Republican contest here is almost identical: a fight between an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, and an insurgent favored by evangelicals, Mike Huckabee.
History favors the establishment's machine over the insurgent's passion: Al Gore over Bill Bradley, John Kerry over Dean, George W. Bush over John McCain. In 2008, that would mean Clinton over Obama.
But Obama's supporters promise it will be different this time, and the candidate himself had the loose confidence on the stump of a man who expects victory on Thursday. "The polls show I'm the only Democrat who right out beats every Republican they can throw up there," he told the crowd here. "I beat Mitt, I beat Rudy, I beat John, I beat Fred, I beat Mike. I beat John. Who else? I'll beat 'em all, beat 'em all! I'll beat Keyes. Who else they got?"
The candidate took the stage to rock music, and Obamania quickly enveloped the crowd, perhaps half under 30.
"How many students are here today?" he asked, earning a loud cheer. "We've been attracting young people like never before to this campaign." To prove this, he called a dozen young campaign workers onto the stage and shook their hands. "These extraordinary young people who are organizing on this campaign who have deferred law school, who have taken leave from their medical studies," he said, "are what this campaign is all about."
For better or worse, that's true.
"This is definitely exciting!" gushed Tanisha Smith as she walked into the ballroom. "He's something new and exciting!" So will she be caucusing for Obama? Nope -- she lives in Tennessee and drove up with friends from Vanderbilt.
Cheering and applauding in the back of the ballroom, a young man named Johnny M. in a blue Obama shirt stood with three friends, two of them wearing "Babies for Barack" pins on their T-shirts. "This is what's fueling this campaign," he said of the young supporters. So will he be caucusing for Obama? Nope -- Johnny M. lives in Chicago and, at 15, is too young to vote, or even drive.
Instead, Johnny M. will be baking cookies with a red-white-and-blue Obama "O" design. Others have offered to babysit for caucusgoers. "The Clinton campaign contracted with supermarkets for sandwiches," he said. "We're doing what we can."
Finally, the search turns up a young Iowan who will actually be voting: 20-year-old Tony Damiano, who went with his parents to a caucus four years ago and watched Dean fall to Kerry. "With Dean, the college students were just words, not action," he said. "This time, it's different."
Obama spoke as if the victory had already been announced. "They said, 'You can't compete with all those institutional endorsements, all that power coming out of Washington. You can't organize politically to compete,' and you proved them wrong again!"
The argument is not quite right -- Obama's $100 million fundraising take for the year has kept pace with Clinton's, and he enjoys more establishment support than Dean did -- but it's close enough for the crowd. "Washington is in what my cousin Cheney calls its 'last throes,' " he said to laughter. "It's pouring in millions of dollars from outside groups. . . . We've seen that movie before, and it won't work."
Of course, it did work before. But Obama plans a remake with a different ending. "All of you who are caucusing for the first time, they don't believe right now that you'll turn out," he said as he closed his speech, urging them to "say no to that and say yes to something better."
The moment the candidate finished, the speakers blared a confident, if slightly premature, announcement: Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."