CLINTON, Iowa — Before swooping into this Mississippi River town Saturday to start her final campaign push for the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton looked up the origin of its name.
It was named after DeWitt Clinton, a governor of New York in the early 1800s. He worked really hard, as she explained at her rally. A smart man. Had big ideas. But he ran into political head winds. New Yorkers voted him out of office. Eventually, he returned to the governor’s office, and thanks to his grit, he completed what then stood as one of the country’s signal infrastructure projects: the Erie Canal.
“He was a leader who set big goals, then he worked,” she said. “He did the politics. He did all that was necessary to clear the way to make that happen.”
Though she didn’t say it, Clinton’s point was obvious: Progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it requires a leader — even an unexciting one — grinding it out, year after year.
Her chief opponent in the Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has lit a fire across Iowa’s frozen prairie with a very different message, which he delivered at a boisterous rally on Saturday in Clinton: a vision for a utopian liberal society.
As he took the podium to chants of “Feel the Bern! Feel the Bern!,” Sanders said, “It sounds to me like you guys are ready to make a political revolution!”
The two candidates’ appearances here on Saturday afternoon, only two hours and three miles apart, both drew big and enthusiastic crowds, though Sanders’s audience of 700 was larger than Clinton’s of 450. At both places, their fans nodded along, cried out, “Yes!” and stood up to cheer.
But in Clinton and Sanders’s closing campaign pitches — and in the presidencies they previewed — there were striking differences.
As Clinton addressed supporters inside the sunlit cafeteria of an elementary school, she sang the virtues of practicality, experience and incremental results.
She recalled being in the White House Situation Room analyzing intelligence of a terrorist plot pegged to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her crowd fell silent. People leaned forward in their seats to listen. The festivities went on as planned, Clinton recalled. “It came down to experience and judgment,” she said.
Clinton wonked out on policy. She detailed how she would do away with the carried interest tax loophole. She shared local stories, too — about the Iowa toddlers who shot themselves with a loaded gun, about the Mississippi River’s potential to generate hydro-energy, and about an Iowa woman named Ellen Mayberry who wrote her a letter complaining that the pharmacy charged her $14,729.99 last year to refill her prescription.
“I’m going after them,” Clinton vowed. “We are going to stop this. This is predatory pricing. It is unjustified. It is wrong. And we’re going to make sure it is stopped.”
Sanders rallied his supporters in the dark, grimy, cinder-block-walled basement of the Clinton Masonic Center. He lit up the room with calls to overhaul the “rigged economy” and “corrupt campaign finance system” and “broken criminal justice system.”
“What our campaign is about is thinking big, not small,” he said. “It is about understanding that in America we are living in the wealthiest country in the world, but most people don’t know that because almost all the wealth and income goes to the 1 percent.”
Sanders villainized the Walton family of retail giant Walmart for paying its employees so little that they turn to federal government assistance for food and health care. He singled out Goldman Sachs for the recent $5 billion settlement in which the bank acknowledged defrauding some of its investors.
“Not one – not one! – of these Wall Street executives has a police record,” Sanders said. “Not only do we have banks that are too big to fail; we have banksters who are too big to jail!”
Sanders sought to place his grass-roots-driven campaign in the arc of American history, drawing comparisons to the women’s rights, organized labor and civil rights movements.
“What history is about is not a few people on top coming up with a few good ideas,” Sanders said. “It’s when millions of people stand up and say, ‘The status quo is not good enough.’ ”
Where Clinton’s presentation was polished, Sanders’s was rumpled. (At one point, he said facetiously of himself, “He combs his hair beautifully — GQ kind of guy.”)
Sanders’s rally was more like a revival lecture. He spoke for roughly an hour, talking in crisp sentences and sparking passionate outbursts from his followers. As he wrapped up, a woman cried out, “We love you, Bernie!” Sanders took no questions.
Sanders’s supporters came away energized, believing they were part of a movement that would sweep the Feb. 1 caucuses.
“Bernie Sanders is actually the only candidate who can change things,” said Julie Ann Neely, 69. “Did you hear any platitudes today? Did you hear any weasel words? Not one.”
Clinton, by contrast, talked for 40 minutes before opening the floor to questions. As she called on people, she walked toward them and stood close, holding out her microphone to them. She showed warmth and spontaneity, such as when one woman asked her about her physical fitness, noting that she had seen commentary on Fox News Channel that she was in poor health.
“They say nearly anything about me, I’ve got to tell you,” Clinton said, the crowd chuckling. “I’ll match my endurance against anybody.”
Many of the people who turned out to see Clinton were already planning to caucus for her.
“I was a supporter last time she ran,” said LeAnn DePue, a 47-year-old special education teacher. “I still have the sticker on my refrigerator. But this clinched it. It wasn’t pie in the sky. She could say, ‘This is what I’ve been fighting for all these years and this is what I’ve gotten done.’ It was all very realistic.”