INDIANOLA, Iowa -- At a bright cold Wednesday morning church event crowded with supporters (a fire marshal was directing latecomers into overflow rooms) Hillary Clinton didn't look spooked by the latest Des Moines Register poll showing her trailing Barack Obama 25 to 32, with John Edwards on her heels at 24 percent. The mainly female crowd, more than half over 50, packed the First United Methodist Church in Indianola, and Clinton acknowledged her comfort there, noting she and her mother, Virginia, agreed it looked just like their Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill.
Maybe the familiarity let Clinton ease into the best and funniest version of her stump speech I've heard yet, complete with newish laugh lines about Dick Cheney's hunting mishaps as well the occasional flash of populist anger. She used her "ready on day one" slogan more than once, and I thought I heard a subtle contrast with John Edwards when she talked about how she "didn't go to work for a law firm" after leaving Yale Law School, but signed on with the Children's Defense Fund (though she was a partner in Arkansas' famous Rose law firm not much later). But in her closing argument, one day before the caucuses, there were no attacks on her rivals, and only one or two mentions of her husband's presidency. It was a positive pitch for her own vision, and the overflow crowd seemed moved.
Clinton promised to immediately get back to work reforming healthcare, talking openly about her failures during President Clinton's first term in the early '90s and noting, "You learn more about a person when they don't succeed than when they do." But she sounded some of Edwards' populism, blaming "drug companies and insurance companies" for the Medicare prescription-drug debacle and other examples of health reform gridlock. She promised she'd sign an S-Chip bill expanding insurance for low-income kids as soon as she's inaugurated.
She had several big applause lines: One came when she recalled telling China's government that "women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights," another when she promised she "will never let anyone privatize Social Security." She got a third big hand at the end of a long attack on the Bush-Cheney administration. She depicted herself as just another fed-up Democrat, "yelling at my television set, asking 'who could write this? The vice president shoots somebody?'" Maybe most surreal, she argued, was the administration's recent attempt (since reversed) to recover signing bonuses from soldiers who couldn't complete their terms in Iraq or Afghanistan because they'd been wounded. She also got the biggest cheers when she promised to help the veterans of her generation -- "Vietnam vets who didn't get the help they deserved" -- and promised to expand mental healthcare for all vets.
She closed with a moving call for those in attendance to caucus Thursday night for their neighbors who can't caucus: "those in Iraq, who work the night shift in a hospital or patrolling in a police car; a husband caring for a wife with Alzheimer's, a wife caring for a husband with Parkinson's." She added the line that will run in her paid two-minute ad tonight: "If you will stand up for me tomorrow night, I'll stand up for you every day in the White House." I noticed a couple of women wiping away tears, something I haven't seen at Clinton events before.
It was the trademark Hillary caucus crowd: Older white women, a lot of them on canes or walkers. I've never seen the camera folk so careful, shouldering their heavy equipment gingerly so as not to whack any gray heads. One photographer gave up his seat in the press corner to a tiny woman on a cane. And while Clinton had five more events around Iowa today, she stayed and shook the hands of everyone who pressed up to meet her. As did her self-described "girlfriend" actor Mary Steenburgen, who posed for endless pictures and signed autographs. Steenburgen depicted the candidate as a loyal friend "who doesn't ask enough of her friends ... I had to be here, I'm lost in admiration for her. It's just an honor to be here: At this moment, in this election, my friend is the right person for the country."
If Clinton was rattled by the final Des Moines Register poll showing her trailing Barack Obama she didn't show it. I've never seen her calmer or warmer. No one knows what to make of the poll's estimate that up to 60 percent of this year's caucus-goers will be first-timers; that 40 percent of those voting in the Democratic primary could be self-described independents, or that turnout could be 220,000 when only 120,000 Iowa Democrats caucused in 2004. While such unusual numbers would seem to favor Obama, Clinton herself has bet on bringing new female and independent voters to the caucuses, and some of the surprises the Register predicts this year's caucuses have in store for us could benefit her as well. The staffers and volunteers I talked to shrugged off the polls, and insisted they're focused on executing their game plan, with thousands set up to drive or walk or otherwise escort their identified supporters to the polls. They'd had to move the Indianola gathering to a larger venue when they got more RSVPs than expected, one volunteer told me; they were happy with the morning so far.
The warmth of the event apparently contrasted with the atmosphere on the press bus (I drove with my daughter), though, where the Politico's Ben Smith describes an awkward interaction between Clinton and the media when she comes aboard to bring them coffee and bagels and thank them for covering her. "One reporter compared the awkwardness to running unexpectedly into an ex-girlfriend. 'Maybe we should go outside and warm up,' said another, as Clinton exited into the freezing air." Glad I drove with my daughter.
Meanwhile, back inside the church, Indianolans Iola and Neil Schreiber marveled at the crowd and said they hardly knew anybody. The two senior citizens described themselves as enthusiastic Clinton-backers. "She can get things done," Iola said, and her husband, Neil, a John Deere retiree in a bright green John Deere hat, agreed. The weather is supposed to be a little warmer Thursday night, but the Schreibers said they didn't expect anything to keep them from caucusing for Clinton.