Obama and his crowds are very happy.

Politics on the road.
Jan. 2 2008 5:27 PM

All Over but the Moonwalking

Obama and his crowds are very happy.

Slate's chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, is reporting from Iowa this week in advance of the Jan. 3 caucuses. He'll also be filing Twitter updates and dispatches about life on the road. You can also follow his travels on the map below. Also, check out John's past travels in Iowaand New Hampshire and all the candidates' whereabouts on " Map the Candidates."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Jan. 2, 2008

Coralville, Iowa, 3 p.m. CT: In 2000, when John McCain was doing so well in New Hampshire, you could feel it in the crowds he was getting. When he attended one of his last events in Peterboro, it seemed like the entire state showed up. Everyone seemed to know that day that he was going to win. (It's also possible we realized it in retrospect and just claim we knew it at the time.) When McCain beat Bush by 17 points, it was fueled by the enthusiasm we all saw at those rallies. So, am I witnessing that moment for Barack Obama now in Iowa City, where he is facing a crowd three times the size of Hillary Clinton's last night?

This is a college town, so it's Obama's strength, but boy, does he have strength here. He asks those planning to caucus to hold up their hands. Three-quarters of the room does so. He asks which of them will be caucusing for the first time, and a huge number raise their hands. This is the big question about the Obama campaign. Can he turn out the first-time voters? Judging by the reception here he sure seems to be on his way.

It's amazing what a good Des Moines Register poll will do for you, but it's also apparently showing up in the campaign's phone calls and canvassing of neighborhoods. "All the signs are good," says a senior aide who should be lowering expectations.

Obama is feeling very good about things. He's using slang like "up in here" and "that's what I'm taking about." He's cracking jokes and smiling like he won't win if he stops. This is not the meandering performance I saw last Thursday night. Some aide is going to walk in on him doing the happy dance when he thinks he's not being watched. (permalink)

Iowa City, Iowa, 5 a.m. CT: It is very early and extremely cold. The wind chill makes it feel like it's 15 degrees below zero. I am at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 diner appearing on CNN's American Morning for a couple of hours. In addition to punditry, I had to figure out how to explain the Iowa caucus system using the condiments on the table. After my appearances I mentioned to CNN host John Roberts that he might want to ask Romney, who was going to appear in the last hour of the show, about that line I heard at yesterday's Romney events. Which of his rivals was he talking about when he said he and his wife wouldn't embarass America? Roberts asked him and Romney, after first saying that he wasn't talking about anyone in specific, then proceeded to ding the Clintons.(permalink)

Jan. 1, 2008

Iowa City, Iowa, 10:45 p.m. CT: The ballroom is packed at the Sheraton for Hillary Clinton. This is an Obama-sized crowd, and it spills into the hallway. She's campaigning with Chelsea, who looks on adoringly and with that kind of engaged look parents take on when they watch their kids perform. The speech is the best I've seen from Hillary—personal and funny, and it makes her case for change, which she's had some trouble doing. At one point she jokes that the Bush administration craziness had her yelling at the television and then delivered in perfect shticky-speak said: "I mean, the vice president shot a guy."  It's been a brutal and long day, as they all are for her, and yet she speaks passionately for an hour without notes. Too bad for her that she wasn't giving this speech a month ago. (permalink)

Pleasant Hill, Iowa, 3:55 p.m. CT: I'm at another Romney house party. The speech is roughly the same. The house is nearly identical. Candles, garlands, framed sayings on the walls, and those bathroom towels that look too precious to use to wipe your hands.

Craig Romney is at this event also. It turns out that the youngest Romney son has the old man's knack for politics—though he says he's not a political animal. Craig tells the identical story he's been telling all day long about his 18-month-old son, who has watched his grandfather so much he now shakes hands of people he doesn't know on airplanes and pretends to sign books at home as Romney does on the campaign trail. Craig's facial gestures are the same at each telling. His pauses are practiced, and the adoring stare he shares with his father is identical. Craig's entire two-minute speech is so similar between the two stops that to gauge the differences, you'd need a special piece of NASA equipment.

There's one element to his final pitch that is new to me. "Anne and I won't embarrass you in the White House," he says. He's said this at the Norwalk event, too. Who is he talking about? Is this a shot at Rudy Giuliani, whose exciting personal life is on the mind of some Republican voters? Or, is he making a point about the general election? If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, is he saying that his squeaky clean family will provide a better contrast to her than any other GOP candidate? (permalink)

Norwalk, Iowa, 2:35 p.m. CT: I am on my own now and waiting for Mitt Romney to arrive at the Coats' house, where he is meeting with supporters. Tom Coats is explaining to reporters why he is supporting Romney. A social conservative, Coats liked Romney's opposition to legal gambling and his business background. What does he think of Huckabee? "He's like the young lady you date from the neighboring town, but then she moves into your school and she doesn't look so good."

The house is nearly identical to the one in Johnstown, Iowa, that I visited with Romney two weeks ago. It's an upscale suburban home a good deal bigger than those homes I visited with the Edwards volunteers. It's festive and still decorated for the holidays. The dining room table is fully laden with shrimp and cookies and warm little meat offerings. Turnout seems low given the amount of food prepared. Either that or the hosts think that Mitt will make people ravenous after he leaves.

There are about 30 people waiting for the candidate, and when he arrives in the Mitt Mobile with a press bus following, the numbers in the house more than double. If this were an Obama event, it would spawn a reality show as the house was rebuilt after it tried to accommodate 3,000 people.

Romney arrives: "I smell something delicious." There is nothing to smell, but never mind. The candidate takes his place before the mantel, which features a frosted snowman with a pipe. All mantelpieces at house parties like these are adorned with big smelly candles, frosted figurines, fake ivy, or garlands with pine cones. Romney gives his pitch, which includes a short cameo by his youngest son. The only thing that's new for me is this line: "Anne and I won't embarrass you in the White House." Hmmmm. Who is that a shot at? Rudy? Or is it a shot at Hillary? Elect me, because I'll be the squeaky clean candidate against those sordid Clintons. (permalink)

Dec. 31, 2007

Des Moines Marriott, noon CT: I am the ultimate hack. I am in Des Moines attending a Mike Huckabee press conference in my hotel. This is the least amount of effort a reporter can expend getting the news. The only thing that would be easier is if he'd given the press conference in my room. Every other member of the media is staying in the hotel, too, which brings up an old conundrum: Do I bother covering an event that everyone else will cover? There will be news crews from all over the world, not just because Huckabee is now in a tight fight with Mitt Romney but because the news is happening so near their already propped up cameras.

What the heck, I decide. I'll go because it's so close. Plus, it's my wife's last day in Iowa, so I'll show her what a press scrum looks like. The first person we run into is Barbara Comstock, a senior aide for the Romney campaign. She's there to see what negative ads he's going to run. The press conference it turned out was a very strange piece of business that required its own story. I was glad I'd brought my wife. People will talk about this moment for years to come. (permalink)

Dec. 30, 2007

East Des Moines, Iowa, 11:30 a.m. CT: The United Steelworkers Hall smells of smoke. Volunteers wearing blue Steelworkers for Edwards T-shirts are talking on the phone with undecided voters and those who are leaning toward Edwards and letting them know that John Cougar Mellencamp is coming to Iowa to play a concert for him. They read from a script and are careful to ask whether the person they are talking to is planning to attend the caucus for John Edwards. Occasionally I hear them making the pitch for the candidate. "He doesn't take lobbyists' money, but Hillary Clinton takes money from defense contractors," says one college-age volunteer who looks nothing like a steelworker and probably isn't one.

After listening to a brief training session for volunteers who are going to spend the day going door-to-door, I head out with one group. My story about that is here. (permalink)

Des Moines, 8 a.m. CT: I've been typing at the Marriott bar waiting for Mike Huckabee to appear on Meet the Press. I've plugged my laptop into the outlet they usually use for the blender to make fruity drinks. Suddenly I find out that the 11 a.m. church service that's on Huckabee's schedule has been cancelled. It was my one chance to catch him all day, so I'd better intercept him on the steps of the television studio. I leave a $20 and head for my car.

There is something called freezing fog in Iowa, and it's wrapped around my car as I speed down the empty streets. Outside WHO-TV, there is a small group of reporters who have the same idea. I have made two key mistakes: I have no gloves and I have a pen. A pencil is called for in this case, because it's so cold my pen ink has frozen. Here is the story I wrote about Huckabee's remarks. (permalink)

Dec. 29, 2007

Des Moines, Iowa, 9 a.m. CT: I'm sick. I'm going to get sicker if I don't stay in the hotel and write. (permalink)

Dec. 28, 2007

Des Moines, Iowa, 6 p.m. CT: I'm sitting in an enormous sound studio, freezing on a tiny chair and hoping that the earpiece I've punched into my ear doesn't come springing out. I'm on Washington Week in Review talking about what I've seen over the last couple of days. I'm asked if Huckabee is falling? Yes. One of the big questions is how much damage Mitt Romney's ads knocking him are doing, but his supporters are committed, so he might not fall that far. What will I be looking for in the closing days? That last closing statement from all the candidates. Right now, Edwards has the strongest pitch among the Democrats. (permalink)

Drive to Des Moines, Iowa,  11 a.m. ET: The heavy snow and a little scoop about the McCain campaign screwed up my plans for getting to a Hillary event. My wife and I head out from Cedar Rapids too late. She drives so I can type and talk on the phone. Every few miles we pass another discarded truck or car that wiped out in the snow. (permalink)

Dec. 27, 2007

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.

On the Republican side, Rudy was the first out with a statement (the terrorist attack meshed perfectly with his new ad). McCain's response was to go a-boasting: "In my numerous visits to Pakistan—to Islamabad, to Peshawar, even to tribal areas of Waziristan—I have seen first hand the many challenges that face the political leadership there." If he had more money, he'd probably run an ad showing his passport stamps.

McCain is probably the one this helps the most, though not just because he has foreign policy experience and Giuliani doesn't. He's competing in the early caucus and primary states, which means he's in that news coverage—especially today, since he's in Iowa. Rudy is in Florida. (permalink)

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