The Amazing Race
I remember the precise moment when I became convinced that this presidential campaign was going to be the best I'd ever covered. It was Saturday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2007. I stood in the lobby of Hy-Vee Hall, the big convention center in Des Moines, watching an endless stream of men, women and children come down the escalators from the network of skywalks that link the downtown business blocks of Iowa's capital. They were bundled in winter coats against the chilly temperatures, and the mood was festive -- like a tailgate party for a football game. But the lure here was not a sporting contest; it was a political rally.
Sen. Barack Obama had imported Oprah Winfrey from Chicago to make the first of her endorsement appearances. The queen of daytime television, professing her nervousness at being on a political stage, was nonetheless firm in her declaration: "I'm here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one. Barack Obama!"
It was startling that almost a year before Election Day, 18,000 people had given up their Saturday shopping time to stand (there were no chairs) and listen to an hour of political rhetoric. In all the eight Iowa caucus campaigns I'd covered over four decades, I'd never seen anything like this. In fact, I'd not seen voters so turned on since my first campaign as a political reporter, the classic Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960.
That year, the old Washington Star sent me to Beckley, W.Va., to get a ground-level view of the Democratic primary between Sens. John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Raleigh County and all of West Virginia were made-to-order for Humphrey, who had the backing of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic state leadership, which was wary of endorsing the Roman Catholic Kennedy in an overwhelmingly Protestant state.
What I found during my week in Beckley, however, was an energized group of young Kennedy enthusiasts, egged on by the candidate's kid brother, Ted. When I walked the country roads and knocked on the doors of the wood-frame cabins, I met a surprising number of voters who were ready to give the youthful senator from Massachusetts a chance. Despite the odds, I reported, Kennedy could win Raleigh County -- as he did.
The day after the Oprah-Obama rally, I went down to Obama's Des Moines headquarters and found Mitch Stewart, his caucus director, happily pawing through a mountain of blue, white and green cards -- each bearing a name, phone number and e-mail address filled out by the people who had packed Hy-Vee Hall. A team of volunteers was beginning to sort the cards by location, distributing them among the 38 offices Stewart had already opened across Iowa. "Phoning will begin tonight," he said.
Nothing comparable was happening that Sunday at the headquarters of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, the caucus favorites, so I reported that Obama might win.
He was not the only long shot who was beginning to move -- and not the only reason this race has been so enthralling.
Even earlier, right after Thanksgiving 2007, I had made my first trip to New Hampshire for this election. I watched a Republican debate at Dartmouth College. The following day, I visited with Mike Dennehy, a young man who had become Sen. John McCain's favorite operative in the Granite State during the 2000 primary, in which McCain had upset then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Dennehy had stayed loyal to McCain after Bush won the nomination, and he was still with the senator, though most of the other campaign veterans had been thrown overboard in the summer of 2007, both perpetrators and victims of a spending spree that had left McCain penniless and seemingly without hope. Dennehy told me that something was happening in New Hampshire: The crowds at McCain's town meetings, which had earlier numbered in the tens or twenties, had begun to grow to 50 or 100. "It's beginning to feel like 2000 again," he said.
Despite the political and journalistic consensus that McCain was finished, he refused to quit and almost single-handedly resurrected his candidacy in a way no one had done since Ronald Reagan took on President Gerald Ford in 1976. On Dec. 2, I wrote that "if the Republican Party really wanted to hold onto the White House in 2009, it's pretty clear what it would do. It would swallow its doubt and nominate a ticket of John McCain for president and Mike Huckabee for vice president." (Huckabee, another long shot, was on his way to winning Iowa on the GOP side.)
In January of this year, you could have gotten great odds against Obama and McCain being the finalists in this election. Obama was challenging the obvious front-runner, Clinton, a former first lady and seasoned senator who had more money and better connections than anyone and offered the history-making prospect of becoming the first woman president. More credentialed and experienced rivals -- including Senate veterans Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, former vice presidential candidate Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- were competing for the non-Clinton vote.