Notes From Drake
by Nate Willems, Sun Aug 19, 2007 at 01:14:34 PM EDT
This is Nate Willems. I was a regional director for Howard Dean's Iowa campaign and recently finished law school at the University of Iowa.800 people filled Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University for the first Democratic debate to be held in Iowa. The 90-minute debate broadcast live on This Week with George Stephanopoulos was the feature attraction of an early morning of Democratic presidential politics along University Avenue in Des Moines.
When I parked my car around 5:45 a.m. near the University, a two block long stretch of University Avenue adjacent to Sheslow Auditorium was already full of campaign organizers and volunteers dressed in their candidates' shirts, carrying a ton of signs, and doing their "visibility" work. I have to give the edge to the Obama folks. They had a large group of staff and volunteers, an awesome step team from Chicago (think of the cheerleaders from the movie "Wildcats"), and they managed to strategically park their vehicles so that they had a large presence on both sides of the Clinton people. These are the minor tactical victories over which campaigns obsess.
The Dodd contingent was just strange. They had a bunch of male staffers who had sprayed their own hair white. They had somebody dressed in a white rabbit suit wearing a sign that said "Dodd's Hare," standing on top of pieces of sod they had obviously brought in and named "Dodd's Sod." Most interestingly, they had a couple of guys in muscle body suits. Their visibility display really just left me questioning their sobriety.
Richardson, Kucinich, and Gravel had no visibility presence before the debate, nor did they have a post-debate rally near the Auditorium. As much as Richardson has risen, and seems to be doing well in Iowa, this is the type of thing that makes me wonder how serious his campaign is. If you are a top tier candidate, you really ought to be showing people that you are playing to win in this type of setting. Add this to Richardson's late cancellation from the Workers for a Better Iowa event last night in Cedar Rapids, where the other five main candidates all spoke, and it simply does not lend a lot of confidence in the direction of his campaign here.
Inside the Auditorium, the crowd was instructed not to clap too much or stand up during the debate. The audience quickly disregarded this direction when Governor Dean was introduced and he received a standing ovation from the crowd. 7 candidates soon filed to the stage. Notably absent was Senator Clinton. She made a separate appearance after the men had been standing at their podiums for several minutes. In speaking to people after the debate, nobody seemed to know why she was late.
From the audience's perspective, Senator Clinton was positioned at a podium on the far right of the Democratic field and Representative Kucinich was positioned on the far left. The first question, to Clinton, asked her whether Senator Biden was correct when he said that Senator Obama is too inexperienced to be President. It did not seem like a particularly fair or valuable question to ask anybody. Obama got the best line in when, after several candidates had the opportunity to not answer the question of whether Joe Biden was right, Obama said, "To prepare for this debate, I rode the bumper cars at the state fair..."
In what may be a new addition to his message, John Edwards asked the question, "Who's most likely to bring about change?" Personally, this is exactly the type of reasoning that has led me to support Edwards. By imagining each of the candidates as President and asking, "Who is most likely to accomplish the things that are important to me?" I found that the answer is John Edwards. Whether or not this way of thinking will catch on amongst Iowa Democrats closer to the time of the Caucuses, I am not ready to predict.
When the focus of the debate shifts to the particulars of Iraq, Joe Biden still seems to have an edge over the rest of the field. He got the best of Bill Richardson in a little exchange. Obama successfully shifts the focus back to the implication he lacks the "experience" to be President and notes that most of the leading candidates voted for the war. Edwards, in a kind of above-the-fray manner, states that, "Any Democratic President will end this war." However, when it comes to the details of exactly how a President will accomplish this task, no candidate seems to be able to beat or make a better case than the one made by Joe Biden.
In responding to two particular questions, Edwards has notably gutsy and well-timed responses. When asked whether the power of prayer could play a role in preventing or lessening the impact of disasters like Katrina or the I-35 W bridge collapse, Clinton and Dodd got the first two responses. Both said that they personally prayed regularly, but declined to really answer the question. Edwards than bluntly stated that, though prayer is important to him, the answer to the question was No. Later, when all the candidates were asked about a time they were less than candid with people as to their own viewpoint, Edwards took the opportunity to cite his vote for the war in Iraq. He admitted that he had great doubts about the wisdom of going to war, but did not express them and made a wrong choice.
In summarizing the performances, people with whom I spoke either thought the debate was a draw or that Obama had given a slightly better performance than the others. To me, Obama did seem more "Presidential" than I thought he had in the past. He defended the positions for which he has been criticized very well and showed a grasp on the minutia of issues from Iraq to the Farm Bill.
After the debate, there were rallies and receptions held by Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and the Iowa Democratic Party within a block or two from the Auditorium. The Obama and Edwards groups were better described as rallies, spilling over into the street. A good contingent of senior staffers from Governor Culver's office were at the Edwards rally, as was Joe Trippi.
I spoke to a 2004 Edwards supporter who is still trying to decide between Edwards and Clinton. She expressed frustration that the Clinton campaign did not seem to realize who the party has changed in the past five years, and that they seem to be running a 1990's kind of campaign. In talking to former Dean supporters, I sense people are a little more inclined to support Obama at this point. There does seem to be a hesitancy to embrace Edwards.
Lastly, I should say that despite my misgivings - I still do not think you should charge people $100 for a ticket to watch a debate - and frustrations I heard from campaign staffers - "the Party changed the rules on signs and visibility like five times" - the Iowa Democratic Party put a great event together this morning. The location was very good, the event was run well, and everything went smoothly.