In Iowa, Obama gets emotional in final campaign rally

President Obama bid an emotional farewell to the campaign trail here Monday night, returning on the eve of the 2012 election to the Midwest town that launched his first run to the White House.

“This is where our movement for change began. Right here,” Obama told the crowd of 20,000 standing outside on a cold, clear evening on Locust Street a few blocks from the state capitol.

It was a night when stump speeches were revised for personal reflections, when attacks on Republican nominee Mitt Romney were scrapped for heartwarming anecdotes.

Obama and wife, first lady Michelle Obama, returned to ask for the townspeople’s votes — but also to thank those who helped them during the 2008 campaign when Obama upset Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.

Michelle Obama recalled house parties in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids and celebrating daughter Malia’s birthday on the trail in Pella. And, she added, she would never forget the time she saw her husband’s face carved in butter at a holiday celebration.

“Believe me, we still talk about that at Christmas,” the first lady said with a laugh.

Then the president came on stage, hugging his wife and offering a warm, verbal embrace to the crowd. “You welcomed me and Michelle into your homes and you picked us up when we needed a lift,” Obama said. “To all of you who have lived and breathed the hard work of change, I want to thank you.”

The crowd, chilled to the bone after standing outdoors for hours, enjoyed the moment. They held blue signs emblazoned with Obama’s campaign slogan “Forward!” and special posters bearing his picture and the words “Final grassroots rally. Finish what we started.”

But the president seemed to relish the night even more. Wearing a black windbreaker, dark slacks and no tie, Obama told the crowd that he had paid a visit to his first-ever presidential campaign field office, a one-story, red-brick building located behind the stage where he was speaking.

“It brought back a whole lot of memories,” Obama said. “You know, when the heat didn’t work for the first week or so, some of you brought hats and gloves for the staff.”

He appeared to tear up briefly.

The president has largely shied away from direct comparisons to 2008 in his 2012 stump speech. Four years after promising “hope and change,” Obama has acknowledged that his supporters are frustrated with “the pace of change.”

But on Monday night, he wrapped up his remarks with a lengthy final anecdote about the origin of his 2008 campaign rallying cry, “Fired up! Ready to go!” He explained that he took the phrase from a South Carolina city councilwoman named Edith Childs whom he had endorsed four years ago.

Obama told the Des Moines faithful that he called Childs the other day and asked her to appear with him in Iowa on Election Day eve, to rehash their old call-and-response routine. But Childs demurred, Obama said. She wanted to campaign for him until the last possible minute in North Carolina, a swing state where Republican nominee Mitt Romney holds a small lead over the president.

“I’ve got to knock on some doors. I’ve got to turn out the vote,” Obama said Childs told him. “I’m still fired up, but I’ve got work to do.”

He continued: “She’s pretty sure we’ll win this election. And she just had one question for you. And that is, are you fired up?”

“Ready to go!” the audience responded.

And soon the president and his wife were walking the stage and waving to their supporters one last time.