Barack Obama's Iowa headquarters near the State Capitol in downtown Des Moines has the unmistakable décor of an insurgent operation: thinning, mildewed carpet; litter from sign-painting parties; recycling boxes full of canvassing tally sheets and empty Miller Lite cartons. But the deepening clutter hasn't covered up all the traces of what the building used to be: a hockey rink, which could hardly be a more fitting metaphor for a political contest that is suddenly getting a lot rougher.
The old Dr Pepper scoreboard is still on the wall, but the largely twentysomething crew at Obama Central has another way of measuring the team's progress. Staffers ring a silver bellhop bell whenever an organizer signs up a new precinct captain who has agreed to stand up and argue the candidate's case before friends and neighbors at one of the 1,784 caucuses that will be held across Iowa on Jan. 3. Since Obama's speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson dinner — his most acclaimed performance since the 2004 National Convention address that made him a celebrity — the bell has dinged more than 233 times.
As the contest for the Democratic nomination moves into the last weeks of exhibition season, it appears that Obama is turning this into a race. "This summer he seemed to still be finding himself," says John Norris, an Obama adviser who ran John Kerry's Iowa operation in 2004. "But he turned the corner and realized, 'This is going to work out if I make it work out.'"
For months — which can be several life-cycles on the campaign trail — it looked as if that turning point might not happen. Despite the record amounts of money he had raised, the organization he had built and the crowds he had drawn, the freshman Senator from Illinois with a message of conciliation and righteousness had seemed for most of the year to be unable — unwilling, actually — to put much of a dent in Hillary Clinton's trajectory of preordination and inevitability. He appeared destined for the same fate that had met a long line of Democratic insurgents — Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean among them — whose promises of a new kind of politics had briefly enjoyed a vogue, only to be crushed into dust by a front-runner who was using the standard playbook.
Some of the candidate's supporters and advisers found his genteel approach to campaigning admirable — and maddening. "There was a panic, particularly in the campaign fund-raising machinery, this summer," recalls Bill Daley, a top Obama adviser and presidential-campaign veteran who tried to tamp down the worriers. "They said, 'He's gotta punch harder; he's gotta engage.'"
The campaign had not lived up to the promise of Obama's February announcement on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., a black man standing in front of the building where Lincoln had delivered his famous "House Divided" speech against slavery in 1858 and decrying "the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics." Crowds turned out by the thousands to hear him almost everywhere he went, but they often left feeling oddly underwhelmed.
Like a concert audience that wants to hear only the greatest hits, they didn't know what to make of Obama's unfamiliar material as he honed his message and started spelling out his policies. The candidate was confused as well. "The expectations," he tells TIME, "are elevated to this odd level. Even when we do the spectacular, people discount it. If we have a crowd of 23,000 people in a red state in the spring, people sort of say, 'Ho hum.' We've raised more money from small donors than all the other Democratic candidates combined, and from a standing start, we are competing with the dominant political organization in American politics that was built over the course of two decades by a two-term ex-President. That's pretty good."
But it wasn't good enough. Nowhere had Obama, with his almost cantankerous disdain for sound bites, been so frustrated as in the unending series of candidate debates that have punctuated the campaign season. In the first outing, he stumbled over a question about how he would react to a terrorist attack, sounding more like a candidate to head the volunteer fire department as he focused on disaster preparedness. Clinton, seeing her opening, spoke as a Commander in Chief: "I think a President must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate."
On the rare occasions when Obama's campaign decided to engage the Clinton campaign, such as when it was caught leaking opposition research done against Hillary to the media, it was deftly outmaneuvered. Her spokespeople were quick to characterize any engagement as a violation of Obama's pledge to practice a new kind of politics. In a series of meetings in Des Moines over the course of two days in early October, Obama's dismayed fund-raisers made another run at him and his strategists, begging Obama to come down off his mountaintop and take her on. That's the old kind of politics, he told them. "That's not who I am."
Taking the Gloves Off
Not until Clinton turned in a couple of unsteady debate performances of her own in October, after having dominated the forums up to that point, did it seem as though someone had thrown a switch in Obama. Suddenly for Obama, as Lincoln wrote of his own presidential aspirations in 1860, "the taste is in my mouth." Voters began to see that he really wanted the job he was campaigning for. "There's a certain joy to it that I see in him now," says his strategist David Axelrod. "I just sensed from that point on that sort of incredible focus, energy, acuity, joy. He's into it."
Obama's Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech hit all the inspirational notes, with its pledge to bring Red America together with Blue America and its invocation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "fierce urgency of now." But it was also an indictment, not only of the Bush brand of politics but of the Clinton one as well. "We have a chance to bring the country together in a new majority to finally tackle problems that George Bush made far worse but that had festered long before George Bush ever took office," he declared. "Triangulating and poll-driven positions ... just won't do."
That, however, can be a tricky argument to make in a Democratic primary, given the exalted status of Bill Clinton in the Democratic pantheon. Obama "has to be very careful about how he attacks her," says Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000 but is not backing any candidate in this race. "He talks about the Clinton years as a failure, when most Democrats know differently." And as a prominent Democratic strategist noted, "I am not convinced this campaign has any sense of how hard the Clintons fight when they feel their birthright is being challenged. I am not sure they are ready for this."
But then, it's a little late for Obama to start worrying about that now. Since he made the decision not just to run but to get pugnacious as well — and since he emerged in the polls as Hillary Clinton's most serious opponent — hardly a news cycle has passed without a punch being thrown by one camp or the other. "It's going to look like this every day between now and the caucuses," says Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. In the latest rounds, Obama has tried jujitsu, challenging Clinton on what she considers to be her greatest strength, while exposing his own most glaring vulnerability: experience. When, during a swing through Iowa, Clinton pointedly asserted that she wouldn't need on-the-job training to deal with the economy, Obama shot back, "I am happy to compare my experiences with hers when it comes to the economy. My understanding was that she wasn't Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration."
Obama has also begun to sharpen one of his strongest arguments — that experience is not the same thing as judgment — for which Clinton has not yet found a rejoinder. One of the biggest applause lines in his stump speech has been the note that "Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld had two of the longest résumés in Washington, but that experience didn't translate into good judgment." After Clinton mocked Obama's assertion in mid-November that his years spent living in Indonesia as a child gave him strong experience in foreign relations, his campaign revised the line to question her judgment as well. "Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld have spent time in the White House and traveled to many countries as well," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton, "but along with Hillary Clinton, they led us into the worst foreign-policy disaster in a generation and are now giving George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran."
The New Ground Game
The polls, though notoriously unreliable in nominating contests, suggest that Obama is at last gaining some traction. Every survey out of Iowa shows the race a tight, three-way fight between Obama, Clinton and former Senator John Edwards, but growing numbers of voters there are rating the need for new direction and new ideas as more important than strength and experience. The question is whether Obama's newfound aggressiveness will undermine his image as the candidate of a new kind of politics. Meanwhile, Clinton's formidable lead in New Hampshire has dropped by nearly half, to 14 points in the latest CNN/WMUR survey, conducted by the University of New Hampshire. More telling is what is happening on the ground: in the past three weeks, Clinton has nearly doubled the size of her late-out-of-the-gate field operation in Iowa, adding about 100 new people, though she still has not caught up with the forces that Obama has had in place pretty much since June. She is also intensifying her travel schedule in Iowa (she has visited only 39 counties to his 68, by the Obama campaign's calculation) and her advertising (which has lagged his — she has spent $3.7 million to his $5.4 million).
Clinton's allies are revising and stepping up their game plans. Emily's List, the political network of pro-choice Democratic women, had planned to put its money into helping Clinton in the big states that vote on Feb. 5 but is now moving its resources into Iowa. The Clinton campaign "clearly thought [it was] on a glide path to the nomination, and that has been disrupted," crows Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "They're going to bring in the cavalry."
But if Clinton has a lot staked on Iowa, her opponents all do as well. If one of them can't manage to at least nick her there, she will come out of that contest all but unstoppable for the nomination. Even Obama admits, "We have to do well. I don't think there's a candidate who can do poorly in Iowa and end up winning the nomination."
As Obama takes the fight to Clinton, there is no small danger that he could be tarnishing the very qualities that have made him so appealing and fresh. A candidate who is engaged in the ritualized back-and-forth that characterizes close campaigns has a harder time making the case that he rejects the old gambits of politics as usual. "They've junked the politics of hope," says Wolfson. "His whole brand was based on that." Obama insists his shift to the offensive doesn't conflict with his new-politics appeal: "I don't feel as if any of the differences that have been raised on my end have been gratuitous, and frankly, I don't feel that any of the differences that Senator Clinton has been pointing out have been gratuitous. It's perfectly legitimate for her to suggest that I don't have enough experience to be President. She's been in Washington for 15 years; it's not surprising that she would see that as important. I don't consider that out of bounds in any sort of way."
If Obama's offensive risks tainting his image as an above-the-fray candidate, he at least starts with a reservoir of high favorability numbers: in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll of likely Iowa voters, 31% found Obama to be the most honest and trustworthy Democratic candidate — about twice the number who said that of Clinton — and three-quarters gave him credit for being candid.
At the same time, Obama's attacks, and those of Edwards, have given Clinton a license to respond in ways that would otherwise be unseemly for a front runner. "It's time. I have absorbed a lot of attacks for several months now — my opponents have basically had a free rein," Clinton told CBS's Katie Couric in an interview. "After you've been attacked as often as I have from several of my opponents, you can't just absorb it — you have to respond." She has been particularly aggressive in going after Obama on health care, saying that his plan — the only one put forward by the top three contenders that does not contain a requirement that people buy coverage if their employers don't provide it — is timid.
Drawing from the Playbook
The truth is, for all his talk about inventing a new kind of politics, Obama has always understood that the old rulebook cannot be completely thrown out in a nomination fight — not if you want to win. It is true that he has told people things they don't want to hear: he has championed merit pay in front of teachers and fuel-efficiency standards before automakers. But Obama also sees political necessity to pander, proposing, for instance, that senior citizens who earn less than $50,000 be exempt from income taxes. That stance could explain how his support among older voters, who make up a disproportionate share of the Iowa electorate, has risen 8 points since July in a Washington Post/ABC poll.
And the avatar of post–baby boom politics must also deal with the fact that the first vote will occur under a byzantine process that requires politicians to perform well under the most retro conditions imaginable. The Iowa caucuses are neighborhood meetings at which voters spend hours arguing with and cajoling one another and organization trumps almost everything else. The actual number of caucusgoers is relatively small — 124,000 turned up four years ago. And they tend to make up their minds late; 2004 exit polls indicated 4 in 10 made their decisions in the last week before the caucuses. What's more, everyone's calculations can be thrown off by a sudden ice storm — or, this time, by the fact that the caucuses are coming on the heels of the holiday season, while colleges are on winter break, and on the same night that a Midwestern team could be playing in the Orange Bowl.
Whatever the drawbacks of this long and brutal campaign season, Obama believes the exercise is a good one for picking a President. "Ultimately, the process reveals aspects of an individual's character and judgment. If you think about past Presidents, probably those two things, along with vision, are the most important aspects of a presidency," he says. "Do you know where you want to take the country? Do you have the judgment to figure out what's important and what's not? Do you have the character to withstand trials and tribulations and to bounce back from setbacks?" In the coming weeks, voters will form their own answers to all those questions.