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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Iowans Taking Hard Look at Obama

Iowans Taking Hard Look at Obama
DES MOINES, IOWA, - Jan. 18, 2007 — Now that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has taken the first step toward entering the 2008 presidential campaign, his neighbors in Iowa want a closer look at him.
Iowans take their duties seriously as the first state to hold caucuses before the primary season begins in New Hampshire. After Obama made his announcement that he is setting up a presidential exploratory committee, the Des Moines register proudly headlined not only his decision but the reminder that the Hawkeye State would be the first to vote on him. And those caucuses are less than a year away.
With that in mind, we took a brief trip to Des Moines, and found residents are eager to learn more about Obama. So far, many seem to like what they know, at least for now.
A KCCI-TV poll just before Christmas put him in a dead heat for the lead with former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is a familiar face here from his second-place finish in the 2004 caucuses.
We began on a frosty morning at a Grounds for Celebration coffee shop in a middle class neighborhood. As residents tried to jumpstart their day with refills of caffeine, most admitted they were more concerned with a local political scandal which resulted in indictments than in the caucuses next January. But they also said Obama's entry into the race got their attention……big time.
Shop owner Jan Davis has overheard her customers discuss Obama. "He's a fresh, new face for everybody to talk about, but everybody probably doesn't know his views yet. Maybe he's overrated, I don't know. But people like to see him on camera and that's the whole deal."
UPS driver Dave Halter savored his coffee, and mused about Obama: "I wish I knew more about him to be honest with you. I think we need some young people in there to get new ideas, but I don't know much about him right now. I just need to know where he's going and what he thinks. He hasn't been around very long."
When we dropped by the Drake University campus, we heard much the same thing from students who seem surprised that someone with only two years in the Senate is making a bid for the White House. On her way to class Lauren Christie told us she wants a woman to win, but she doesn't think "Hillary Clinton is the one to do it." She believes Obama is "popular with young people." But she thinks that could hurt him with older voters "if he comes off as Mr. Cool."
Mr. Cool? Law student Sean Beaver thinks so. "He's kind of the 'it' guy right now," he said. "They all talk about him right now. He was on Monday Night Football. I think that's something for a politician to make it on that."

That kind of buzz has generated interest, but it may not mean much when Obama is mucking about rural Iowa next winter. Farmers will be much more interested in his evolving views on corn and ethanol than the "cool" factor.

Lynell Wagenman likes Obama, but also respects his Democratic opponents including Clinton, Edwards and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Wagenman said Obama is "a very charismatic man" who will make the race "a lot more interesting."

Paige Harbin, holding her books and stopping to speak with us on a snowy sidewalk, said what we heard over and over from young and old, men and women: "He's young and fresh. I'm just curious to see what happens with him."

Harbin, like the other Iowans we met, thought Obama's mixed-race heritage will not be an issue for many voters. "I think he kind of transcends color. I think Iowans really do look at all things. It's not just Democratic or Republican, we look at a good candidate who has the people in mind."

Our brief visit certainly does not tell us much about how Obama will fare in this crucial state. But a few points are worth noting.

We noticed that although most people had good things to say about Obama, they never talked about issues. We never heard anyone say, "I like Obama's stand on Iraq or national security or health care or economic policy."
This weekend John Edwards will go to the University of Iowa in Iowa City to talk about Iraq. This university town has long been regarded as a liberal enclave in a state where conservatism often thrives. But Iowa is a state which can swing left or right, depending on the candidate.

Edwards has been getting good notices from Iowa liberals for his economic populism and especially for his anti-war views. Iowans who oppose Bush's policy on Iraq have viewed both Clinton and Obama as timid compared to Edwards. But the two senators have taken bold steps this week, and Iowans are still digesting this.

On Tuesday Obama, in declaring his intent to establish an exploratory committee, said "we're still mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged." Without ever mentioning Clinton or Edwards, Obama was reminding voters that, unlike those Democratic opponents, he did not vote for the Iraq war. He couldn't have. He wasn't even in the Senate during the October 2002 vote authorizing the use of troops in Iraq.

But on Wednesday, Clinton countered with her strongest move yet, introducing legislation to put a ceiling on troop levels. Then Obama called for a "phased deployment" of troops out of Iraq. Today Obama told the Senate, "the president must announce to the Iraq people that within two to four months under this plan, U.S. policy will include a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces."

To some it appeared that Clinton and Obama were engaging in a game of poker over Iraq, with first one and then the other raising the ante. Supporters of both senators have said that historical forces this week, and not political gamesmanship, have forced them to clarify their positions.

Still, whatever the motivations, the flurry of activity on the Senate floor means it is no longer clear who the "anti-war" candidate will be by the time the Iowa caucuses come into focus. But, with their new positions this week, both Obama and Clinton are looking less and less moderate on Iraq. And when Edwards addresses Iowa students this weekend, he will no longer have a firm claim on anti-war factions.

Obama at some point will come to this pivotal state, and Democrats will ask for more clarity, not only about Iraq, but about other issues. He knows that, but it's still early days. For now, he has remarkable name recognition for someone with only two years in national politics.
Iowa Democrats may not know a great deal about Barack Obama. But they know this: They are ready and willing to learn.
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