Candidates resume final push in Iowa

Clinton, Huckabee bring out weapons of choice

December 27, 2007|By James Oliphant and John McCormick | James Oliphant and John McCormick,Chicago Tribune

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa -- With just over a week to go until the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mike Huckabee brought out the big guns. But only Huckabee shot anything.

The New York Democrat's weapon of choice was her husband, who in a packed high school auditorium echoed the refrain that all the candidates have been furiously embracing, saying his wife was a proven agent of change. "Hillary has a unbroken record of making decisions that have had a positive change in other people's lives," former President Bill Clinton told the crowd of 500 people.

Meanwhile, GOP front-runner Huckabee took veiled jabs at his chief rival, Mitt Romney, while bringing reporters along on a pheasant hunt on a snowy, windswept Iowa plain. A regular hunter, Huckabee then shot a pheasant. "Don't get in my way," the former Arkansas governor joked. "This is what happens."

Clinton's deployment of her husband, along with their daughter, Chelsea, and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, revealed how high the stakes have become as the candidates hurtle toward the Jan. 3 finish line. Recent polls have shown her losing ground to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Whether it was the pressure of the race or the folksy, fiery introduction from her husband, Clinton seemed particularly energized. "The Republicans have thrown everything they could at me for the last 16 years," she said to a large ovation. "It drives them crazy I'm still here. So you don't have to worry about me waging a winning campaign."

As Clinton began her final push for victory, Obama, whom some polls have as leading the pack, toured northern Iowa. At a stop in Webster City, he reflected on when he announced his presidential bid in February.

"My bet was that if we presented a campaign of change, then the American people would respond," he said. "Here we are 10 months later, and we are on the verge of winning Iowa."

But Obama said he expects that other campaigns will try to plant "seeds of doubt" about his candidacy in the coming days.

"Vote your hopes," he said. "Don't vote your fears."

Obama also made an overt appeal to those supporting candidates such as Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd, who might not be viable in all precincts, saying that he would like to be their "second choice."

Under Iowa caucus rules for the Democrats, candidates must receive support from at least 15 percent in the precinct to be deemed viable. If a candidate is not viable, supporters may back another candidate or remain uncommitted.

"If you are serious about change, then you can't look to the same folks doing the same things and expect something different," Obama said.

That, of course, was a shot across Clinton's bow, as the former first lady mentioned the word change throughout her speech yesterday. "I think it takes strength and experience to make change in our political system," she said. "We can't wait. We don't have any time to waste."

But Clinton, as she did at her event in Iowa on Sunday, avoided going negative on her competitors. Instead, she focused largely on domestic issues such as affordable health care.

On the Republican side, Huckabee remains locked in a tight struggle with Romney. He brought reporters out to a frozen field outside Osceola to discuss his campaign and, as a subtext, illustrate his support for gun rights. (A local official of the National Rifle Association accompanied him on the hunt.)

Huckabee, in full hunting regalia, appeared more than ready for the cold conditions. He also had a 12-gauge shotgun in hand. "I'm just talking about taking care of business," he announced.

The business, of course, was Romney. Without mentioning the former Massachusetts governor by name, it was clear who Huckabee's real target was, with the unlucky pheasants along to serve only as metaphors.

Romney, he said, "is focused on telling people why I shouldn't be president. I've been here focused on telling people why I should be."

James Oliphant and John McCormick write for the Chicago Tribune.

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