DES MOINES, Iowa — Barack Obama began his speech in an odd and important way, a way that did not make a single news story.
Obama was delivering a major address, reminding voters of his early opposition to the Iraq war. It was big deal speech. There were prepared texts handed out to the press and everything.
But Obama’s first words were not in his text, even though they may have been the most important words he spoke all day.
“If you have not yet signed up as a Barack Obama supporter, hopefully after the speech you will,” he told the crowd at the Polk County Convention Complex.
“Fill out one of those cards. We’ll have volunteers all across the doors. You won’t be able to get out without seeing one of these cards.”
Pretty mundane stuff, right? Which is why most candidates don’t bother with it. Especially not in a speech being covered by the national press, with six TV cameras grinding away.
But that Obama did bother with it is the most important sign I have seen that he actually understands Iowa.
“If you are already a supporter, then I would love for you to fill out another card indicating you want to be a precinct captain,” Obama went on.
“Because we need precinct captains in every precinct all across Iowa. And if you are not going to be a precinct captain, then we want you to find four more supporters to caucus for us. That’s a pretty simple assignment.”
Because voting in the Iowa caucus is very difficult — and meant to be that way — crowds here are more than crowds. They are the raw material from which caucus victories are made.
I traveled around Iowa with Fred Thompson one day this week and never heard him ask anyone to sign up for his campaign, fill out a card or even vote for him in the caucus.
And his staff didn’t hand out sign-up cards in a disciplined fashion.
Obama’s staff did. There were staffers at every entrance and exit. They collected names, home and e-mail addresses, and phone numbers.
These names will be added to other names to form huge lists. The campaign then will contact every person on the list (several times) to pitch them on the candidate, answer questions and judge the level of support.
This is the unglamorous, arduous drudge work that in Iowa is absolutely essential.
In a primary state, a candidate can catch fire at the end, wow big crowds with his speeches and roar to victory on Election Day.
That usually doesn’t happen in Iowa. Having an inspiring, energetic, magnetic candidate is real nice, but without an organization to back him up, it doesn’t mean much.
While I was in Des Moines, I talked to Gordon and Monica Fischer. Gordon was the Democratic Party chairman here during the last presidential election. Monica worked in the administration of former Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Every Democratic presidential campaign called the Fischers this time to ask for their support. Last week, the couple announced they were going to work for Obama.
One reason, they told me, is they think Obama is the best candidate, with the greatest chance of winning.
But there was another reason.
“He is the best-organized in Iowa,” Gordon said. “He has the best ground game.”
“And his people,” Monica said, “are relentless.”
Relentless is good. Real good. Relentless works in Iowa.
After Obama’s speech, he worked the rope line, which just about every candidate does. But on the rope line, there was a staff person behind him, with sign-up cards in her hand.
And if you shook the candidate’s hand, or got an autograph from him or got him to pose for a picture with you, she handed you a card and asked you to sign up, to volunteer, to bring four friends with you next time.
“We would love to have all of you involved and before I even get started, I know the rules here in Iowa,” Obama had said at the beginning of his speech. “I want all of you to caucus for me! So you can’t say that I didn’t ask you!”
The crowd laughed and applauded. So many candidates simply forget to ask people to vote for them.
“You know there is starting to get a little zip in the air,” Obama said. “It is time to make a decision. And I hope you make a decision on my behalf.”
Mundane stuff. The stuff that didn’t make a single story.
But the zip is in the air in Iowa. And soon the snow will fall. And caucus night will come.
And the race is not always to the swift here. It is often to the relentless.