DAVENPORT, Iowa -- As his campaign bus cut a swath through the Iowa countryside, a place as metaphorically white as the thick blanket of snow covering its towns and farm fields, Barack Obama today considered his place in the landscape with a sense of optimism.
Obama may or may not win the Iowa Democratic caucuses Thursday, but it will always be true that he, a black man with an African name from the South Side of Chicago, was a serious presidential contender in the heart of white-bread Middle America.
"That says something about the country," Obama told the Tribune in an interview, as his Iowa caucus campaign drew to a close. "People are willing to look beyond race, particularly on issues as important as who is going to lead the country."
"You see it in our rallies," he said as he left one and headed for another, "all walks of life."
The crowds at his Iowa events have been consistently large, and notable for the diversity of age, race and even ideology within them. Progressive caucus-goers pack the gymnasiums and auditoriums to see him. People who say they're independents or even Republicans profess interest in his themes of "hope" and "change."
Some in Obama’s circle admit to a case of nerves this week. Like many who have followed the Illinois senator’s meteoric rise over the past year, they’re unsure what will actually happen when the celebrity campaign finally goes quiet for a night and the decision lies in the hands of those who will brave the snow and ice.
But the candidate’s wife, Michelle Obama, says she isn’t worked up over it. Close friends echo the senator’s own sentiments.
Even if he loses, Obama contends, he still wins.
“Look, I don’t think there is any doubt that, even if we didn’t come in first, that we have been competitive in Iowa,” Obama said. “It indicates the degree to which race is still a factor in our society . . . That’s part of what America is about. There are these possibilities of doing things that haven’t been done before.”
The campaign has covered many miles over the past 11 months, since Obama announced on the lawn of Illinois’ Old State Capitol in February that he would seek the presidency.
He had burst onto the national political scene not three years before, when he gave his signature speech at the 2004 Democratic convention as a young and little known member of the Illinois legislature. An eloquent elegy to the ideal of American unity, the address propelled him into national prominence before he had even properly ascended to the U.S. Senate.
Still, some considered him an unlikely candidate for the White House, and wondered how much even friendly Democrats would be willing to gamble on him.
Some of those activists resided in Iowa, said Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, who encouraged Obama to run in the first place and then set to work persuading his friends and allies in the neighboring state.
“Six months ago, when I would come to a small town in Iowa, the local activists would close the door and say, ’Do you really think an African American can be elected president?” Durbin recalled today, as he campaigned for Obama in eastern Iowa.
“It was a blunt question, and an important one,” Durbin said. “In a state that has never had a statewide African-American candidate, I would talk to them about my experience with Barack in Downstate Illinois, and how well he did there.”
Over the months, Durbin and his wife, Loretta, have visited Iowa frequently, and the senator says they watched as the race question slowly faded from the discussions.
“I think they’ve put that behind them,” Durbin said. “The fact that they’ve come to see this as a real opportunity, a real possibility, says good things about Iowa and the campaigns.”
The question is by no means laid to rest. Political analysts speculate that black voters around the country harbor suspicions about how white America will treat Obama. If he does well in heavily white Iowa on Thursday and New Hampshire next week, the theory goes, more black voters will believe that he is viable and consider getting behind him.
As they strive to appeal across many demographic divides, Obama intimates generally shy away from defining things in terms of race. Michelle Obama in particular favors words like “people” and “human” over the vernacular of race and ethnicity.
“This process has been a real human experience,” she said when asked about the import of this week’s caucuses.
“It’s the culmination of talking and listening and building the kind of organization that engages people . . . People want real change and are trying to figure out what that change should look like.” Indeed, a key theme of Obama’s message is about overcoming traditional division in the U.S., between black and white, old and young, Republican and Democrat. He doesn’t offer a lot of race-related commentary on the stump and avoids simplistic discussion of the subject altogether.
While his campaign has a broad outreach program to Iowa’s black communities, surrogates such as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) have been doing a great deal of the work. Obama himself has only visited black churches in Iowa a few times.
But with just hours to go until the caucuses, Obama spoke directly to the question as he headed to a campaign event with a largely white audience.
There is historic potential in Thursday’s caucuses, but Obama suggested the real pressure isn’t in being the most competitive African-American candidate to make a run in Iowa.
“I want to win the nomination, then win the general election, then govern the country,” Obama said. “I feel pressure to deliver on the promises that I make during the campaign.” That, he said, is where the potential symbolism lies.
“Any symbolic or historic significance,” he said, “would be a byproduct of success in achieving those goals."