Iowa fundraiser elevates political profile of Obama

Appearance fans debate over whether Illinois Democrat should join '08 race

September 18, 2006|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- Most people would not choose to spend a Sunday afternoon at a damp county fairgrounds to hear the words of a politician who was not likely to say what a lot of them wanted to hear.

Yet thousands of the most hardened political junkies Iowa has to offer turned out to hear Sen. Barack Obama, who is being urged by some Democrats to say yes to a presidential bid, altogether ignore those pleadings.

And they loved it.

"The sooner he runs, the better" is how Sheila Pottebaum, a psychologist from Des Moines, described her feelings about the calls for the first-term Illinois Democrat to jump into the presidential race. "He has the personality and the moral convictions."

Obama, who was the featured speaker at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, has repeatedly said that he is not a presidential candidate in 2008 and that he has no interest in running. Yet the invitation to speak at Harkin's showcase event has only elevated Obama's profile. Previous speakers have included a number of Democrats who have run for president, including Bill Clinton (three times as speaker), current Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Obama's appearance has also fanned the debate as to whether the charismatic 45-year-old -- not two years into his first term in the Senate -- should answer the call.

That question is of particular interest in Iowa, which holds the first of the presidential nominating sweepstakes in January 2008. Nearly a dozen unannounced Democratic candidates have been crisscrossing the state, some since last year. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was in Iowa yesterday. So was former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who spoke briefly at the Harkin fundraiser, calling Obama "one of the great shining new stars in the Democratic Party."

In his 38-minute speech in front of a large American flag and a small stack of hay bales, Obama talked eloquently of opportunity, fairness and hope for the future. In one of the few moments of tossing partisan red meat to the Democratic crowd, Obama took direct aim at President Bush and congressional Republicans, charging that they have politicized the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pointing to allegations "pretending that some people are appeasers ... creating false dichotomies about cut and run, and stay the course," Obama said, "I've had enough of using terrorism as a wedge issue in politics."

Despite the overall positive reception for Obama, it should be noted that Iowa is not into coronations. Candidates are expected to pay homage to ethanol, know the difference between barrows and gilts, and appreciate the virtues of loose-meat hamburger. But above all, if they are to win the hearts of Iowans they are expected to spend a lot of time here, in pastures and living rooms.

Obama "has become this larger-than-life figure, one of the few politicians that enjoys rock-star political status," said Gordon Fischer, the state's former Democratic Party chairman. "He would start out with considerably higher favorability ratings, but he would have to face the same kind of obstacle course as everyone else."

Cameras flashed as Obama took the podium yesterday, reflecting for many a curiosity and for others a hunger for someone new to hit the state. Linda Alloway, a high school guidance counselor from Indianola, said she "loves" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads most published polls of likely Democratic candidates.

"But she's too polarizing and [Republicans] have made her out to be a witch," Alloway said.

That sentiment was echoed by others who felt that New York's junior senator, who finished second behind Edwards in a Des Moines Register poll in June, could not get elected because she arouses strong animosities.

Still, the field in Iowa is wide open. "Hard-core Democrats in Iowa appreciate all these people coming in, and they are deliberately waiting for who else will get in," said state Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs.

"They take this very seriously," Gronstal said.

David and Mary Williams, who live in the southwest Iowa community of Villisca, are regulars at the Harkin event. They said they liked Obama.

"But I think he is down the road a few years. Not yet," said Mary Williams, who voted for Kerry two years ago, is not sure Hillary Clinton can win and is searching for someone to get excited about. Maybe Edwards, she said.

Her husband, David, said Obama "needs more experience."

Gene Lansing, a retiree from Dubuque, said he came to Harkin's event for one reason: to see Obama. "If he were running tomorrow, I'd vote for him," Lansing said.

"I want to see somebody like John Kennedy who can get people excited and get this country going," Lansing said. "We're in trouble."

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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