MUSCATINE, IOWA — Barack Obama may be the darling of the college set, but the Medicare crowd is another story. While young Democratic voters have gravitated to his presidential campaign, seniors have stampeded to Hillary Rodham Clinton's.
That's why it was welcome news to his supporters when Max Allan Collins, a writer, rose at a recent campaign event here to announce that his 82-year-old mother wanted to vote for Obama.
"He's so sincere," said Pat Collins, a Republican who is turning toward the Democrats because she is disillusioned by President Bush and fearful that her grandson could be sent to Iraq. "He would bring the nation together," she said of Obama.
Collins' conversion is one sign that the Illinois senator, whose campaign's greatest appeal is among younger voters, is making urgently needed inroads into the over-60 set as he struggles to catch up to front-runner Clinton.
The stakes in the battle for seniors are especially high in Iowa, because the state's presidential nominating caucuses -- which are widely seen as a make-or-break first test for Obama -- have traditionally been dominated by senior citizens.
Even as Obama tries to mobilize legions of college-age activists, he is also reaching out to older voters with events tailored to their interests. He is, alone among the Democratic candidates, making a high-profile issue of shoring up Social Security. He has proposed abolishing the income tax for seniors making less than $50,000 a year. And he is recruiting older Iowa Democrats to teach new voters about the state's arcane caucus system.
Senior citizens can be a tough crowd for Obama, who is 46. His appeal for generational change and his critique of 1960s politics sometimes sound like an indictment of everyone over 50. His youth and relatively short governmental resume may not sit well with older voters who value the wisdom of age.
"He probably needs a little more experience," said Charles Wasko, a retiree in Ottumwa, Iowa, who is backing Clinton. "We just got done with a president with no experience and look at all the trouble we're in. You don't get those gray hairs from nothing, but from working at this stuff."
As a group, seniors seem far more comfortable with Clinton, who turned 60 in October. A national USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted Nov. 2 to 4 showed the New York senator with support of 48% of voters 55 and older, while Obama was backed by 15%.
But those views may be shifting. In crucial early-voting states where Democrats have seen Obama most, he is making gains among older voters.
In New Hampshire, a recent Marist poll found that among men over 45, Obama leads Clinton 24% to 22% -- a big swing since October, when she led by a 20-point margin.
In Iowa, an October Hawkeye Poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers found Obama garnering support from 24% of those over 60, nearly double his August showing.
Political analysts say that older voters provide a sturdier foundation for a candidate than younger voters, who are notorious for their low turnout. That is of particular concern in Iowa this year: Many college students registered to vote in the state may still be away on break when caucuses are held Jan. 3. That could make it difficult for organizers to mobilize such supporters at particular caucus sites. And if history is any guide, seniors will have outsize influence on the outcome: 64% of Iowa's Democratic caucus voters in 2004 were over 50.
"Barack Obama would not be a serious candidate for president in Iowa if he was not reaching out to seniors," said Josh Earnest, Obama's Iowa communications director.
Some critics questioned how serious Obama was about connecting with seniors when he, alone among the major Democratic candidates, declined to attend a September forum by AARP to discuss healthcare, retirement security and other issues of interest to older people.
Obama's aides explained that it was more important for him to talk to voters about those issues solo than to accept every one of the flurry of invitations to debate. He took flak for that decision. David Yepsen, Iowa's leading political columnist, called Obama "the clear loser" of the AARP debate.
But Obama has taken steps to show he cares about seniors. The day after the AARP debate, he had an "intergenerational" town hall meeting in Ames, Iowa, designed to let him address old and young voters.
"If the greatest generation can teach today's generation anything, it's that a greater America is still possible," said Obama, who called for expanding volunteer opportunities for seniors. "I believe that Americans of all ages are still willing to serve this country in ways big and small."
His campaign has brought young and old supporters together by organizing a group of 73 experienced Iowa caucus- goers -- average age 62 -- to train first-time participants in the process. He still has to convince many that he would be their best champion: A November survey of AARP members in New Hampshire found that 15% named Clinton as the candidate best equipped to address their concerns about financial security; 5% named Obama. A similar disparity was found among Iowa AARP members in a September survey.
He has recently been trying to raise his profile on those issues.
In a visit to an Ottumwa elementary school during a bus tour of Iowa this month, Obama held a round-table discussion with seniors about retirement issues. His economic plan, unveiled earlier that week, included the proposal to eliminate income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 a year.
A recent ad on Iowa television focused on his call to shore up Social Security's finances. His proposal is particularly appealing to retirees, because it would not cut their benefits; instead it would raise the tax burden on wealthier workers. That proposal -- to raise the $95,700 cap on income that is subject to Social Security tax -- drew enthusiastic support at the round-table discussion.
Upper-income people "need to have the dickens taxed out of them," said Judy Beisch, a retired teacher in Ottumwa.
Mark Penn, a senior advisor to Clinton, argues that she wins strong support among older voters because "they tend to put a higher premium on the importance of experience in a highly complex world."
But Obama's advisors maintain that many older voters are as receptive as young people to the idea of political change, and that reservations about his relative youth can be allayed when older voters meet him and hear him speak.
"The challenge was just to get them in the room," said David Axelrod, a senior advisor to Obama.
It was a combination of frustration with the status quo and exposure to Obama that helped bring Pat Collins into Obama's camp. Collins was disillusioned with Bush. She believed Obama would be a less divisive leader. And she was wowed by meeting Obama's wife, Michelle, this fall.
Her son said he was flabbergasted when Collins told him that, after years of voting for Republicans for president along with her late husband, she was supporting Obama.
"I'm sure my husband is twirling in his grave," Collins said.
Michelle is the one that really moves me, too. And damn it, I just remembered I'm a "senior," as well.