Iowa Caucuses America's Next Top Democrat

With the Iowa vote nearing, Clinton, Obama and Edwards reveal sharp tonal differences, betting the farm not on policy but on political panache.

By Walter Shapiro

From left to right, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama are the top candidates vying for the US Democratic presidential nomination.

From left to right, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama are the top candidates vying for the US Democratic presidential nomination.

In the headlong rush to the Jan. 3 caucuses, the Democratic presidential race has become -- bizarrely enough -- a virtually issue-free zone. Vanished from view are the public battles over Iraq and the skirmishing over whose healthcare plans provide universal coverage. Instead, in unprecedented fashion, the three leading Democrats are roaring into the final 17 days of the campaign debating from afar what style of presidential leadership, what strategy for change, is demanded in the bitter aftermath of the George W. Bush era.

Their stump speeches -- often glossed over by reporters as the elevator music of politics -- highlight the sharp tonal differences separating Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Between now and the caucuses, each of these tightly bunched candidates will probably speak to more than 30,000 Iowa Democrats in high school gyms (the favored venue this year) and other public settings around the state. Over the weekend, I sampled the campaign-rally rhetoric of the front-running Democratic troika as they crisscrossed each other's paths, with Edwards and Obama even speaking at the same time in Mason City (different locales) on Saturday night.

These speeches offer Iowans their best glimpse into the minds of the candidates, since they allow for a sustained argument (unlike campaign ads) and rise above the ephemera of the daily press flaps. So in traditional "Brazil: Land of Contrasts" school-report fashion, here are impressionistic accounts of what the three leading Democrats were emphasizing over the weekend.

Hillary Clinton

At a noontime rally Sunday in Council Bluffs, kicking off a five-day helicopter tour of the state, Clinton unveiled a new section of her stump speech arguing that only she has the been-there-done-that pragmatism to prevail in Washington. The former first lady began by repeating a refrain that had been crafted for last Thursday's final Iowa debate: "Some people believe that you make change by demanding it. [John Edwards, please pick up the red courtesy telephone.] Some people believe that you make change by hoping for it. [Barack Obama, this Bud's for you.] I believe that you make change by working hard for it."

But then she went further, explaining the virtues of experience in terms eerily reminiscent of Kenny Rogers singing "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." In the new Clinton version, the lyrics are: "Hard work demands that you know when to stand your ground and when to find common ground. If you're too unyielding you won't get anything done ... You have to work with other people. But if you don't stand up and refuse to compromise about what's important, you could lose out the opportunity to make change. You have to know how to balance it."

The campaign slogan "Hillary: The Candidate With Balance" may not appeal to her team of image makers, but it comes close to capturing the essence of her argument. Edwards is too hot, Obama is too cool, and the New York senator is just right. Clinton -- who seemingly aced every exam at Wellesley and Yale Law School -- also increasingly stresses her sadder-but-wiser outlook after the implosion of healthcare reform in 1994. As she put it in another passage grafted onto the stump speech, "I think you can learn more about a person when you see what they do after they don't succeed."

Not until 30 minutes into her Sunday speech in Council Bluffs did even Clinton mention Iraq -- and then it was just two short sentences: "Finally, we will make a new beginning to restoring America's leadership in the world. It will start with ending the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home quickly."

In fact, Clinton dealt with most issues (including Iraq) as part of a two-minute drill at the end of her speech. During those applause-line-crammed 120 seconds (an official tape-recorder count), she veered from calling for "a universal pre-kindergarten program" to "more job training, more apprenticeship programs" to ending "the no-bid contracts for Halliburton" to "lifting the ban on stem-cell research" to "appointing qualified people to government again." She also crammed in ending "No Child Left Behind" and reversing the Bush's administration's "war on science."

Eight years ago, at this point in the campaign, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were wrangling over the nuances of their healthcare plans. Four years ago, Howard Dean was still riding high as the I-was-right-from-the-start antiwar candidate in the race. Now issues are rattled off with the speed of an antique-furniture auctioneer trying to get rid of the bric-a-brac at the end of a long sale.

Barack Obama

When Obama spoke Saturday afternoon to about 300 Democrats at the Hoover Middle School in Waterloo, there was nary a reference to Herbert Hoover, who had been demonized by Democratic orators for three-score-and-ten years for bringing on the Depression. Another small indication of change was that Saturday, for the first time in memory, I noticed a few empty seats at an Obama rally. But when it comes to his stump speech, Obama remains the candidate most comfortable with an audience listening to him intently rather than wildly cheering at each choreographed clap-now moment.

Alone among the Democrats, the freshman Illinois senator addresses a larger malaise in our political culture that goes beyond the iniquities of the Bush administration and the Republicans. Americans of all parties, Obama declared in Waterloo, "have lost their trust in their government and want to believe that we can do great things again. That is why this is a moment both of great challenge but also great opportunity. I think our politics is up for grabs right now. I think we have the chance -- for maybe the first time in a generation -- to bring the country together, to form a working majority and finally tackle problems that George Bush may have made far worse, but were festering long before George Bush ever took office."


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