DES MOINES, Iowa -- As The Fix trekked back and forth on ice-slicked roads to a series of Democratic presidential forums today one thing became very clear: Barack Obama is hitting his stride.
At both the Heartland Forum Saturday afternoon and the Brown and Black debate later in the day, Obama displayed a deft political touch that was largely absent from his campaign in its early days.
(His Iowa campaign also got a very nice boost late Saturday when the new Des Moines Register poll put him at 28 percent as compared to 25 percent for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and 23 percent for former Sen. John Edwards. The new poll also showed that Obama was doing better than Clinton among women likely to attend the Iowa caucuses next month, 31 percent to 26 percent. Women represent roughly six in 10 Democratic caucus goers, according to the new poll. )
At the Heartland Forum, a mother told Obama of her daughter's rare eye ailment and how the SCHIP legislation had allowed her to get the care she needed before asking about his plans to provide health insurance for all Americans -- a major (and growing) point of contention between himself and Clinton .
Before the candidate answered, the girl -- age 10 or so -- crossed the stage to "meet" Obama. He bent down and chatted for ten seconds or so with the girl before sending her back to her mom and answering the question. It was a compelling moment in what was generally a lackluster gathering.
It was a moment that even a few months ago Obama would not likely have capitalized on. Obama -- still new to the political game -- had shown an awkwardness earlier in the campaign when confronted with moments just like the one today; at an MTV/MySpace forum in Iowa in late October a young woman spoke very personally of the deportation of her father. Nearly in tears, she asked Obama what he would do to prevent situations like hers being repeated. Obama's answer was entirely sound but carried no real emotion and felt like a missed opportunity in retrospect.
Obama carried his strong showing into Saturday night as he -- as well as all the other Democratic candidates except former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska) -- participated in a debate (of sorts) focused on issues of import to African American and Latino voters.
Asked what he made of the fact that Clinton was leading him among black voters in national polling, Obama showed his improved ability to stay on message. He argued that African American voters were like any other voters in that until they get to know you and your track record they're going to be asking questions" before pivoting to the message at the heart of his campaign: "I believe I can bring the country together [and] overcome the special interests," he said.
Time and again, he touched on his unique ability to bring people together and break out of the political status quo -- closing his remarks at the debate by citing Martin Luther King Jr's declaration of "the fierce urgency of now."
It's worth noting that in both gatherings Obama was playing to friendly crowds. At the Heartland Forum there was a huge (and hugely vocal) group of activists from Illinois that hung on Obama's every word; at the Brown and Black debate, he benefited not only from an audience seemingly predisposed to his message but also a group of questions that played to his strengths.
Still, Obama doesn't set the rules. He plays by them. And, in past debates and forums he has struggled as his more professorial nature has chafed against the limited speaking times and rebuttal opportunities offered him. On Saturday he showed his growth as a candidate -- portraying himself effectively as a confident, empathetic agent of change.
If Iowa is Obama's proving ground, his performance here on Saturday showed he is on firm footing.