DES MOINES, Iowa—Running first in fundraising and second nationally among Democratic presidential contenders, Barack Obama is asking voters to take a leap of faith and embrace the promise of his charismatic leadership to change America.
He’s betting that voters will rally behind his motivational style and personal appeal despite his relatively thin national credentials, that they’ll choose him as a clean slate for the future rather than restore a Clinton political dynasty and they’ll embrace his idealistic if vague vision of a unified, post-racial America.
“There is this narrow window that doesn’t come around that often—maybe once a generation—where we have the opportunity to put our shoulder into the wheel and move history in a better direction,” Obama told about 1,000 people last Tuesday evening. They were gathered around a gazebo in the old-fashioned town square in Fairfield, Iowa, where residents are known for their interests in meditation and environmental consciousness.
“That’s the moment we’re in,” Obama exhorted, his voice building steam. “But we’ve got to seize it.
“If we seize it together,” he said, allowing the last word to linger, “we are going to transform the United States of America. It’s a matter of who can ignite the American people to build a movement for change.”
That’s the soul of Obama’s message. Many Democrats find it electrifying.
In campaign stops during a two-day swing through southeast Iowa last week, the magnetic 45-year-old Illinois senator didn’t try to compete with the strengths of his two main rivals who are ahead of him in polls here, the first state to vote in next year’s nomination contests.
Obama’s depth of experience is no match for Hillary Clinton’s years of national political training. Her two terms as first lady and second-term service as a senator from New York trump his background as a Harvard-trained lawyer, Chicago community organizer, Illinois legislator and freshman U.S. senator.
Nor can he equal the amount of time that John Edwards already has invested in cultivating Iowa Democrats. Edwards has all but lived here for the past 18 months.
Even Obama’s policy applause lines aren’t much different from theirs: Get U.S. troops out of Iraq, make health-care coverage universal, mandate more fuel-efficient cars.
But he uses the “shoulder into the wheel” imagery at nearly every stop. He speaks of a “politics of hope,” a “hunger” for change and a philosophy that individual fates are interconnected, “that I am my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper.”
And when this African-American speaks of his implicit promise to lead America beyond race, his cues are evocative, but indirect. He doesn’t talk about the challenges he’s faced of straddling black and white America, of how he grew up with a white American mother and an African father who left when he was young.
Instead, he talks of being raised by a single mother—and mentions a grandmother still in Africa. He talks of America having survived harder times, and of moving past eras of war, slavery, segregation, even the civil rights movement.
In a brief interview, weaving past fans at a July Fourth baseball game in Des Moines, Obama acknowledged the racial subtext of his stump speech.
“I think that’s one division that needs to be bridged. But it’s one of many. I also think I’ve got the capacity to build bridges between Republicans and Democrats, the division between the secular and the religious.”
Bridge-builder. Transformer. A new leader for a new era. That’s his pitch.
The voters who came to see Obama—at an elementary school in Keokuk, a coffeehouse in Oskaloosa, a backyard in Pella, a July Fourth picnic in a Des Moines park—covered the spectrum: Democrats, independents, past Bush supporters who regret the war. Most were white.
In any setting, Obama seems to relish the moments after a speech, when adults and children swarm to shake his hand, have a photo snapped or collect an autograph. Some just want to confide in him.
In one receiving line at a backyard gathering in Mount Pleasant, Eleanor Longfield, a modest, gray-haired woman, told Obama that her 37-year-old son, an Army major with three children, was about to be deployed to Iraq for a third time. She was scared.
Obama placed both hands on the retired nurse’s shoulders. He held her gaze and told her he wants to bring the troops home. “I’ll pray for you,” he said.
As tears welled in her eyes, he hugged her close.
Shaking, Longfield ducked out to compose herself. She headed to a table of lemonade and cookies under a shade tree.
“It’s between Obama and Edwards,” she said, “but after today I’m leaning toward Obama.”
Obama’s energy feeds off the crowds.
Before small audiences, he sometimes comes across as professorial, his words and gestures measured. His left index finger jabs the air, his head tilts to one side when he makes a point.
The bigger the audience, the louder and more instinctive his speech becomes. His tall, slim frame exudes new energy. At a small event, he said cars should be getting 45 miles a gallon. Hours later, he told a much larger crowd he could see cars soon getting 50 mpg—even 60!
He also can be disarmingly goofy.
In the middle of one speech outdoors, he started coughing uncontrollably, then admitted, laughing, that he’d just swallowed a gnat. He tried to continue but the coughing overtook him.
“Don’t film that!’ he pleaded to a camera crew, as the audience chuckled. “That’s all right. I hadn’t had lunch yet—protein.” An aide brought him a drink and he picked up where he left off.
Verona Williams, 70, a black, retired after-school teacher, brought her 11-year-old grandson, Noah, to get an autograph at a Keokuk event in an elementary school. She also brought an old cowbell she’d bought at an auction.
“Hearing his speech, I had to ring the bell for him,” she explained. “The children of all races will see how united the United States has become. That’s going to be a start.”
Many here said they didn’t expect to settle on any one candidate for months.
Bob Owens, 52, a factory worker in Pella, left an event at a neighbor’s home still unsure whether the first-term senator is experienced enough to be president, but “very impressed” by his manner and message.
“I thought he came across as very personable, down to earth, family oriented, well educated.”
Many expect their decisions to come down to Clinton or Obama.
Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy met Clinton years ago and considers her most qualified. He met Obama last week for the first time.
“I like Hillary Clinton, but I still have to get over some of the votes she made on the war,” Malloy said.
With Obama, who opposed the war from the start, Malloy said, “I came away very, very impressed. I think he’s got a natural capacity to inspire. On an inspiration, gut feeling right now, I’d say I’m closer to Senator Obama.”