DES MOINES, Iowa — One week ago, Senator Barack Obama was prowling the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza preparing to tell millions of Americans: "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!"
But today in Des Moines is bigger. This audience — which numbers in the thousands rather than the millions — is bigger than "SNL," bigger than 30 Rock and bigger than New York. It's Iowa's annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner, and it could be the most important step in perhaps the most important leg of the Democratic Party's run for the White House.
And Obama's certainly not alone here. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson and virtually every political reporter to ever bang out a blog are here as well (yes, Tim Russert and I are finally under the same roof).
The floor is a well-heeled who's-who of political movers and shakers decked out for this sprawling dinner party. But in the balcony, it's a pure pep rally. Supporters sit in large blocks devoted to their candidate, waving their signs and serving up competing chants — the sea of Obama followers swallowing the auditorium with "Fired up! Ready to go!" washing over the block of Edwards supporters and their "Go John Go!"
And these candidates need them. Because this dinner is about peacocking, about showing the Iowa Democratic powers that be that you've got a campaign worth some party love. It's like the Democratic National Convention — but unlike there, where the anointing of a candidate is a formality, here the jury is still out (way out). Maybe the mission was best summarized by Elizabeth Edwards: "She had one last bit of advice for me," her husband John recalled at a pre-dinner rally. "She said, 'Go out there and give 'em hell tonight.' "
And that's exactly what these would-be presidents did. Joe Biden got tough, blasting Republicans ("They just had their values conference last week ... I'd love to debate Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or any of these guys on values," he barked) and talking tough about the diplomacy and the resolve needed to stabilize Iraq. "Don't tell them what they want to hear; tell them what they need to know," he said. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, meanwhile, played nice, imploring the audience, "It is critically important that Democrats not tear each other down." And it's hard to tell if he managed to woo any new voters, but Chris Dodd certainly turned in the front-runner for unofficial Jefferson Jackson Dinner nickname, calling it "candidates on a stick."
But they were very much opening acts for the big three — Clinton, Obama and Edwards — all running in a tight pack in Iowa polls. Edwards was actually the first of the candidates to speak and he rattled the rafters, his voice cracking at times as he railed about fighting poverty, aiding the American worker and providing universal health care. He slammed the field of Republican candidates as all being "George Bush on steroids," and he served up some parting shots for that soon-to-be departing administration. "A little over a year from now, we will no longer have George Bush and Dick Cheney to kick around anymore, and what a great day that will be for America," Edwards said. And, of course, the crowd ate it up.
Hillary Clinton stood strong and swung back at some of the jabs she's taken from her fellow Democrats in recent weeks, laying into some of her greener opponents. "Change is just a word if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen," she said. But there was still plenty of ire for Republicans and "the failed policies of George Bush."
"This election is about the Iowans — and the Americans — who feel invisible in this country, and invisible to their president," Clinton said. And her supporters matched her fervor, boisterously shouting and pounding their thundersticks.
But the rock star of the night could well have been the headliner, Barack Obama, whose supporters were chanting "Obama '08" before Hillary had made it off the stage. And the senator matched their energy, taking on Iraq, global warming and the voting records of some of his opponents. "When I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran or that I support that Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders we don't like ... That's why I'm in it," Obama said.
But once again, the chorus had a familiar melody. "In a little less than a year, you will go to the polls and vote for the next president of the United States. Here's the good news: the name 'George Bush' will not be on the ballot," Obama said. "We were promised 'compassionate conservatism,' and we got Katrina and wiretaps."
"America, our time is now," Obama exclaimed in a moment that even got the Clinton supporters banging their thundersticks.
But the stage of Veterans Memorial Auditorium was only a small portion of the battlefield here. The war for caucus clout (see "What's A Caucus, Anyway? Our Reporter Explains From Iowa Campaign Trail") spilled into the streets of Des Moines, with seemingly every spot where your eye might fall plastered with political signage. Ten hours before the dinner began, the streets were already teeming with eager campaign volunteers, each identifiable by their T-shirts (Obama's in red, Edwards' in white and Clinton's in yellow, apparently not getting the "these colors don't run" memo). Not content with the frontage of the Auditorium, campaign volunteers took over seemingly every available building facade within a three-block radius. Parking garages, union halls — no building went untagged. An 8-foot-tall span of plywood with a hand-painted "Joe" beamed from across the street from the venue, while individual letters spelled out "Edwards" next door. With every solid structure claimed, the Obama camp strung up a makeshift banner between two trees.
The pageantry (and struggle for dominance in the attention market) continued through a string of events, appearances and photo ops leading up to the dinner. Obama brought out John Legend for a pre-dinner rally ("I'm thrilled to be here for the next president of the United States," Legend told the crowd), and then led his followers in a march to Veterans Auditorium, complete with drum corps.
John Edwards went for a similarly spirited, albeit somewhat quieter pre-dinner affair. The music came courtesy of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley — who noted that he'd cast his first-ever vote for Harry Truman and he'll cast his next for Edwards — and the march opted for Des Moines' cozy skywalk instead of braving its brisk autumn streets, although Edwards also enlisted a drum corps (apparently it's been a boom week for area cymbalists).
Constituents brought their A-games as well. Yes, there were T-shirts, buttons and hats, but there were also full Democrat donkey costumes and at least one snowman (clearly no relation to Young Jeezy) making noise about global warming.
Of course, it's easy to think that none of this, really, has anything to do with leading the free world. That chants and signs and buttons are good for the homecoming game, but they aren't going to stabilize Iraq or up your take-home pay. But if you can inspire someone to make a giant star-spangled top hat out of posterboard or to spell out your name in 8-foot tall letters festooned with Christmas lights, then maybe, just maybe, you can inspire a nation as well.