Des Moines, Iowa-- Buoyed by a widening, seven-point lead in the latest and most respected state poll, the Barack Obama campaign today saw a routine gathering of volunteer canvassers mushroom into a raucous, celebratory mass pep rally for the candidate.
As the morning edition of the Des Moines Register showed Obama with a 32%-25% lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards standing at 24% in Thursday night's caucus, the Roosevelt High School auditorium was unexpectedly flooded with nearly 1,500 supporters who braved sub-freezing air temperatures.
A drop-in by Obama to greet the precinct walkers was long planned but no one anticipated the crush of attendees and media that overflowed the gym. He was joined onstage by wife and two young daughters.
"The polls look good, but the polls don't count," a visibly confident and jubilant Barack Obama told the bundled up crowd. "The only thing that counts is that you go to caucus, that you call your neighbors, that you knock on doors. That's the only poll that counts."
The centrally located Des Moines high school gym floor was converted into a virtual ground-war command center, with volunteer and staff campaign field workers stationed at tables for every major district in surrounding Polk County. With caucusing set to begin in 48 hours, scores of canvassers were loaded with voter- information packets and deployed to knock on doors in 15-degree temperatures.
"Each canvasser has a walking map and a list identifying each household -- which ones say they are for sure going to caucus for us and which ones are undecided. We have a different piece of literature for each one," explained 27-year-old field staffer Mario Bonifacio, who was serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq until last May.
The Des Moines Register poll carries unusual significance because it is considered not only an authoritative survey but also one likely to influence the vote. Obama's lead in the poll was fueled by a projected unprecedented turnout of young, independent and first-time caucus goers, an assumption now being criticized by the Clinton and Edwards campaigns.
But Obama took efforts at today's event to showcase the youthful core of his campaign organization. He proudly brought to the stage his top dozen organizers for Polk County. All were under 25 and dressed mostly in jeans and sweatshirts.
Obama stuck closely to the latest version of his stump speech, underscoring his central themes of hope and change. "There comes a moment in each generation," he said, provoking a loud ovation: "This is our moment. This is our time."
He devoted some special emphasis in today's address, however, to the issue of the war and related national security matters The Iowans he has met on the campaign trail, he said, "are ashamed of Guantanamo, they are ashamed of Abu Ghraib, they are ashamed of warrantless wiretaps and they are ashamed we are having a debate in this country on when to use torture." He vowed not only to end the war in Iraq but also to end "the mindest that gets us into war.
Just that sort of rhetoric is what attracted staffer and Iraq vet Bonifacio to the campaign. "It wasn't until I got over there in Iraq that I realized we weren't fighting for all the good things the politicians told us," he said as he continued to stuff the canvassing packets. "But Obama was against the war from the beginning, and he was right."
A few miles away at the downtown Obama headquarters there was a buzz of last minute activity. A midnight statewide conference call conducted right after the Register poll was released helped set the marching orders for these last three days.
One room in the chaotic jumble of rented offices is staffed only by those whose task is to solve individual logistical problems in getting voters to the caucuses on Thursday night. "We're gearing up," said staffer Bobby Gravitz. "We're calling in everybody and anybody who's ever worked for us, who's ever volunteered for us, who has ever said they want to volunteer. This is it."