By Dana Milbank
Saturday, January 5, 2008
CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 4
Hillary Clinton may have lost to Barack Obama in the race for Iowa, but she exacted her revenge in the race out of Iowa.
In the wee hours of Friday morning, Clinton's police-escorted motorcade, zipping along the dark roads between downtown Des Moines and the airport, arrived mere seconds before Obama's police-escorted motorcade at the Signature Aviation terminal. The cars in Clinton's motorcade then fanned out on the tarmac as she boarded her plane, making it impossible for Obama's motorcade to get to his airplane.
"We're being blocked by another candidate's motorcade," an Obama aide said into his radio, as Secret Service agents tried to negotiate an end to the standoff. "We're trying to go around, but it doesn't look good."
No, it doesn't.
Just four days separate the Iowa caucuses from the New Hampshire primary, causing an accelerated sprint from one state to the next, and the candidates and staffs -- already exhausted because of Iowa -- are in for a grueling weekend.
When Obama finally made it past the Clinton blockade at the Des Moines airport, the new front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination climbed aboard his campaign plane, a lumbering, old DC-9 with the dubious name "USA Jet" on it. For a man who had just pulled off a stunning victory in Iowa, he looked neither fired up nor ready to go; mostly, he looked as if he needed to see his pillow.
"My throat is hoarse, but my spirits are good," the tired candidate announced to reporters on the plane.
Senator, how is the race different now?
"Um," said the usually loquacious leader, "we won the first caucus."
Any changes to the campaign planned?
"It's not broken -- why fix it?" Obama parried, with his newfound economy of words.
Reporters continued to call out questions until Obama broke it off: "All right, let me go to sleep."
But not for long. His plane touched down in Portsmouth, N.H., at 4:30 a.m., giving him just a couple of hours of downtime before a full day of campaign events -- and three more days like it to follow.
The fatigued synapses are already showing. At a rally in an airport hangar in Portsmouth, Obama apologized to the crowd because "my throat's a little sore." Then the famously silver-tongued candidate read his way through a new stump speech and nearly stumbled into what, coming from the current president's mouth, would be called a Bushism. America needs "a president who," Obama says, "will be [pause] willing to [pause] be disagree -- [pause]." He tried again: "Will -- will be willing to disagree with you without being disagreeable."
Clinton, knocked from her front-runner perch on Thursday night, seemed in an even worse state of weariness. She began her trip through New Hampshire by disparaging Iowa, the state she had been wooing for the past year, for a caucus system that doesn't allow for voters who simply can't show up. "This is a new state," she said at a diner in Manchester. "You're not disenfranchised if you work at night. You're not disenfranchised if you're not in the state."
At the moment, Clinton seems to be the one in danger of disenfranchisement. She had only a couple hundred people at her arrival rally in an airport hangar. At Obama's arrival rally, 1,000 people or more filled the old Pan Am hangar. Some Clinton aides even talk of going to South Carolina to "build a new firewall," in lieu of her old New Hampshire firewall, which now appears vulnerable to a rapidly spreading Obama brushfire.
Obama is surely enjoying this turnabout, but he's probably too weary to show it. Getting on his plane in Des Moines, he loosened his tie and walked down the aisle to face reporters standing on seats and armrests in a tangle of limbs to get near enough to hear the candidate. In flight, he struggled to find a restful position in his first-row seat; reporters in the back watched his head bob as he drifted in and out of sleep. Then the plane made its pre-dawn landing in Portsmouth (temperature: 2 degrees), and he and his aides sleepwalked into waiting vehicles.
Obama roused himself enough to give a speech at his arrival rally at 9:30. His alertness was helped by the fact that the hangar was frigid, and Obama wasn't wearing an overcoat. But there were dark circles under his eyes, he referred to his text more than usual, and he cut his speech to about 20 minutes from the 50-minute version he'd been giving in Iowa.
Still, in this brief period of consciousness, Obama moved quickly to capitalize on his Iowa momentum. "In New Hampshire, if you give me the same thing that Iowa gave me last night, I truly believe I will be the president," he told the cheering throng in a raspy voice.
New England Cable News broke away from its live coverage. "You're listening to a hoarse Barack Obama," the anchor announced.
There were only a couple of hours to rest voice and eyelids before the next stop, in Concord, where another crowd of more than 1,000 filled a high school gym. A line snaked around the block, and those who hadn't RSVPed were put on a waiting list to enter. Rock music blasted through the speakers just before Obama's arrival, startling caffeine-jittery reporters.
Obama again set about fanning the Iowa flames high enough to overcome Clinton's New Hampshire firewall. "Yesterday may have been the first election in our recent history where young people between the ages of 18 and 30 . . . caucused at the same rate as people 65 and over," Obama told the crowd, many of them high school kids.
Lampooning the Washington establishment's view that he "needs to be seasoned and stewed" and "we need to boil all the hope out of him," Obama held up the verdict of the caucuses: "The people of Iowa heard that yesterday . . . and what they realized was that the real gamble was to have the same old folks."
But a sleep-deprived brain is prone to misfire. Obama, in the half-hour speech, kept catching himself circling back toward lines he has already uttered. And when it was time for him to say, "Last night, the American people began down the road to change," it instead came out: "Last night, the people of Iowa put the America [pause] on [pause] the road to change."
Fired up? Ready to rest.