Vinton, Iowa, 8:30 CT: Obama's crowd is nearly four times the size of the Edwards event earlier in Waverly. The high-school cafeteria looks like it was built just yesterday, which apparently it was. The senator is also in his closing argument uniform. No more white shirt without a necktie. He's in a blue suit and tie. Of course that could be because he's just come off an interview with Wolf Blitzer, which was playing on the flat screen television in the hall. Obama is defending his aide David Axelrod, who said Clinton's Iraq judgment contributed to Bhutto's death. When he gets into the room, he refers to the interview as the "normal political silliness." He's irritated because this was to be his day for his tightened stump speech, and with seven days to go, distractions hurt more than ever with so little time left.
Introducing Obama is retired four-star Air Force Gen. Tony McPeak, who served as Air Force chief of staff during the first Gulf War: "[Obama] didn't come out here and try to prove how tough he was and then because of polling had to show you how soft and fuzzy he was. He's authentic. That's who the service chiefs want to see: someone real in here," McPeak said pointing to his chest, "beneath the T-shirt." (permalink)
Cedar Falls, Iowa, 6:15 p.m. CT: John McCain doesn't look comfortable. He's standing in front of a potentially hostile audience put together by the Iowa Christian Alliance. The crowd is about the size of the one at the Edwards event, but we're standing in a plush, high-ceilinged ballroom, so it looks like there are fewer people. Little plates of half-eaten cheese are scattered in the crowd. A different kind of evening rally might have a little wine. There's none to be found here. McCain is uncomfortable perhaps because he knows social conservative voters didn't like his position on campaign finance or his work with the gang of 14, which helped break the logjam over judicial nominations. But mostly I think it's because he has to behave himself. His normal salty asides won't go over well in this room. In the end, there are no great trick questions or theological challenges from the audience. They love his pro-war speech. (permalink)
Waverly, Iowa, 5 p.m. CT: I've made it to the American Veterans hall just in time to catch John Edwards. I'm traveling with my wife (romantic!), who was skeptical about my last Edwards piece and now gets to see for herself if I got it right. The room is packed with a little more than 100 supporters. It's hot and close and you don't have to be too tall to touch the acoustic ceiling tiles. The video the Edwards campaign plays in rural settings rolls as we walk in. Edwards' campaign predicts big things for him in the rural areas, where they say Clinton and Obama are weak. Because the Iowa caucus is about apportioning delegates and not a simple body count, winning in the small farmland precincts can matter more than packing the halls in Des Moines.
In the film, narrated by the Dukes of Hazard's whimsical mechanic Cooter (also known as Ben Jones, the former Democratic congressman from Georgia), the candidate's parents testify to his humble upbringing. There's Mr. Edwards talking about giving his son that famous advice about never walking away from a fight. (With all this talk about fighting, no one mentions that Edwards' grandfather was injured for life as a boxer.)
From the bar in the other room drifts the smell of cigarette smoke. That's a novelty these days, since most smokers are forced into that pathetic shivering huddle outside buildings. Edwards enters the room, and he's not wearing the grad-student outfit anymore. He's in a blue suit and mentioning how old he is (54). In the closing week, you want to look presidential, not boyish. He delivers an even more honed speech on the rapacious corporations that are to blame for everything. The audience is quiet until he says that the only way corporations are going to give up their power is if it's taken from them. The crowd applauds loudly. Edwards barely mentions the war. As my wife points out, that would be off-message. He's offering his closing populist theme. He's staying focused. (permalink)
Des Moines, Iowa, 2:15 p.m. CT: I have just landed in the snowy gray whiteness of Iowa. I read The Road over Christmas, and now that I'm back on the stretch of I-35 where the color spectrum has been removed, I feel like this is the kind of landscape Cormac McCarthy was writing about. (permalink)
Knoxville, Tenn., 11 a.m. ET (en route to Iowa): Moments after former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's death was announced, I was getting e-mails from campaign aides, political obsessives, and the campaigns themselves. The candidates are quick to express their sadness, of course, but everyone is moving so fast because they're trying to muscle into the news cycle more than ever. There's only a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, and this murder lands right in the middle of a key issue in both parties. The ability to react to unpredictable news in a crazy world is at the heart of both primary debates.
To the extent that unpredictable news about the dangerous state of the world helps anyone, it helps the "safe candidates" (Clinton, McCain, and Rudy) rather than the untested, roll-of-the-dice candidates (Obama and Huckabee).
Pakistan has already been an issue in the Democratic primary because, remember, Obama took a controversial stand on taking military action in Pakistan whether the leaders of the country liked it or not. Hillary Clinton has been making the explicit pitch on the stump that voters can never know what a president will face, and therefore, they should elect a person who will be ready on Day One. To convey her depth of experience on this issue in particular, prepare to spend the day listening to Clinton talk about her personal relationship with Bhutto, which goes back to the mid-'90s. John Edwards seems to have the same idea: "I have seen firsthand in Pakistan, and in meetings with Prime Minister Bhutto and President Musharraf, the instability of the country and the complexity of the challenges they face," goes a release from his campaign this morning. Joe Biden, for his part, is planning to hold a press conference on the assassination.