By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
DES MOINES, May 20 -- Sen. Barack Obama returned Tuesday night to where his presidential candidacy first took off, while his campaign began to shift its focus from the Democratic primary fight to the general election.
Speaking at a downtown rally, Obama paid tribute to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) as "one of the most formidable candidates to ever run for this office," and took care not to assert that his battle against her is over. "You have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States," he said. "It is good to be back in Iowa."
But for the most part, he ignored his lopsided loss to her in Kentucky, and talked instead about Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee. "This year's Republican primary was a contest to see which candidate could out-Bush the other, and that is the contest John McCain won," Obama said.
The campaign chose to return to Iowa to commemorate Obama's first and most important victory, in the state's caucuses in January, on the night that he secured a majority of pledged delegates -- a symbolic benchmark that represents its view that he has secured a virtual lock on the nomination.
"We knew this was likely to be the night," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief political adviser. "What better place to mark it than the place it all began?"
At Obama's Chicago headquarters, senior staff members now spend their time planning how to retool the campaign for the contest against McCain, expanding such key departments as field, research, policy and communications. They speculate about potential vice presidential contenders, although that process has not yet started. And they debate how Obama will spend June and July, with a foreign trip one possibility, along with return trips to such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan.
Campaign officials have also drawn up plans to take over the Democratic National Committee -- the traditional prerogative of the party's presidential nominee -- so that coordinated general-election efforts can begin. The campaign is likely to dispatch Paul Tewes -- who ran Obama's Iowa operation and led efforts in other key states, including Pennsylvania -- to the committee, according to campaign sources.
The core of Obama's staff has worked together for 18 months now, and some fretted about the cultural changes that could come with an infusion of outsiders, who will be dispatched to individual states and regions, and also brought aboard in Chicago. But the landscape already looks different.
Such stalwart Clinton supporters as Roger Altman, the former deputy Treasury secretary, and former Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle have floated offers of assistance, Obama campaign sources said. That's a sign that the party is closing ranks, despite Clinton's continued presence in the race.
For Obama, Iowa was a win-or-perish state from the beginning. He committed more time to the caucuses than to any other contest, spending much of 2007 wooing an exclusive club of notoriously fickle party insiders who constitute most caucusgoers.
The senator from Illinois went on to win 31 contests, but none carried the weight of Iowa. Beating Clinton and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) altered the course of the race by establishing Obama as her chief rival -- the only candidate with the message, organizational muscle and financial resources to challenge her front-runner status.
"Fifteen months ago, in the depths of winter, it was in this great state where we took the first steps of an unlikely journey to change America," Obama told the crowd in Des Moines.
"The skeptics predicted we wouldn't get very far. The cynics dismissed us as a lot of hype and a little too much hope. And by the fall, the pundits in Washington had all but counted us out. But the people of Iowa had a different idea."
At his first campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Obama drew 2,000 curiosity seekers; they barely responded to his lengthy remarks about Pentagon funding and merit pay for teachers. In those early months, he would fly in and out of the state on weekends and during Senate breaks, holding mostly events in rural communities, attended by as few as 50 people.
Iowa became a touchstone for the candidate and his senior advisers during rocky months in the summer and fall, when Obama's poll numbers were barely budging. Axelrod recalled attending a staff retreat outside Des Moines last summer, when Obama was struggling to gain his footing.
"We were being written out of the race, and these kids were just oblivious," the adviser recounted. Through that difficult spell, Axelrod added: "We'd go to Iowa, and we just knew, there's a lot here for us."
Obama spoke of a similar contrast before the crowd in Des Moines. "In the darkest days of this campaign, when we were dismissed by all the polls and all the pundits, I would come to Iowa and see that there was something happening here that the world did not yet understand," he said.
The state also served as a test market for tactics that have become standard operating procedures for the Obama campaign, such as the outreach to Republicans and independents that the campaign quietly conducted to expand the universe of caucusgoers. It also aggressively targeted students from universities and even high schools, an effort it has replicated successfully nationwide.
The Obama formula would remain the same in the 53 contests that would follow, including the final, upcoming primaries in Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana. And, as Obama predicted Tuesday night, it will carry him through November.
"The same question that first led us to Iowa 15 months ago is the one that has brought us back here tonight; it is the one we will debate from Washington to Florida, from New Hampshire to New Mexico -- the question of whether this country, at this moment, will keep doing what we've been doing for four more years or whether we will take that different path," he said.
"Thank you, Iowa."