DES MOINES, Iowa – In the end, Iowans voted for a smile.
They chose conciliation over combat, personality over pedigree, hope over fear. They voted for the new, with fervor.
Whether that sets a tone for the campaign to come is far from certain – in fact, things could get harsh in a hurry. But at least on this cold night, there was a powerful suggestion that voters were intrigued by a different kind of politics, particularly independents who increasingly say they are weary of the old partisan fights.
It can be a mistake to make too much about the candidate anointed “President of Iowa” by the quaint and quirky precinct caucuses. Ask George H.W. Bush in 1980 or Bob Dole or Richard Gephardt in 1988.
In the case of Barack Obama, though, it also could be a mistake to make too little of it. History isn’t always apparent in the moment. No other figure in modern American politics has had such a swift rise, built on such thin experience, who at the same time could inspire such a sense of the possible. The country had never seen the serious prospect of a non-white president, or watched such a powerful portrait as Obama and his wife, Michelle, as a potential first couple.
Now it has.
His stunning triumph Thursday came in Iowa, where less than 3 percent of the population is African-American, and it came against the most formidable political machine in Democratic politics – the Clintons.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s inevitability long has been overstated, and she was wounded – though not mortally – by this surprisingly large defeat.
For John Edwards, who had almost lived in Iowa for four years, his neck-and-neck race with Clinton gives him an argument to continue, but not a strong one. Voters did not see him as the anti-Clinton. That might well have been due in large part to the fact that the buoyant optimism of his 2004 campaign was replaced by an angry populism that clearly has its limits.
Even less viable now are the three candidates with the most lengthy political resumes – Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
That’s not Mike Huckabee’s new lot. The genial former governor of Arkansas’ strong pull with religious conservatives overwhelmed the moneyed structure of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to win the Republican caucus. Now Huckabee faces a considerable challenge in New Hampshire on Tuesday from Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who did surprisingly well with a minimalist campaign in Iowa
Huckabee’s finish was notable for other reasons. It was a triumph of message over money, having been outspent at least tenfold by Romney. It also was a clear demonstration as well of the continued power of religious conservatives in his party.
McCain, who famously spurned Iowa when he ran in 2000, is ascendant again in New Hampshire, a state where religious conservatives don’t play as significant a role. The results call into serious question the candidacy of Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator, who never seemed to take running for president seriously.
The Republican race, other than Huckabee’s 11th-hour conversion to all-positive campaigning, promises to be much rougher than the Democrats’ with clear attack lines drawn between Romney and McCain, and Romney and Huckabee. The curious near-bystander in the process, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has banked on the unprecedented strategy of nearly forgoing the early contests in favor of large states beginning with Florida on Jan. 29. It is a strategy that many analysts see as more flawed by the day.
Change is a powerful animating force in politics, particularly when folks are so fed up with the status quo. The politics of the last 16 years – so riven with animus – may be undergoing its own form of climate change. Obama would be a clear beneficiary. It was not easy. He was encouraged repeatedly to attack Clinton lest he be seen as weak. He resisted the urge and Iowa rewarded him Thursday.
The increased turnout was almost entirely among the group of potential voters who had been hardest to reach, namely the young and those who had never participated before.
Obama entered the race with the belief that the time was right for a post Baby Boom-generation candidate who was not shaped by the defining struggles of the 1960s. It was almost post-racial, even post-political. It’s working for him so far.
Still, Obama has many hurdles to clear. And a wounded Clinton is potentially even more dangerous politically to him as they now travel to New Hampshire, the state that gave Bill Clinton his first real chance at winning the Democratic nomination in 1992 when he proclaimed himself “The Comeback Kid.” For some reason, both Hillary and Bill Clinton seem to be at their best when they have been knocked down.
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