We woke up this morning to a fat copy of the Des Moines Register in front of our hotel room. The front page declared that “Hillary Clinton was the star attraction at Saturday’s Jefferson Jackson Day dinner.” And in today’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney says that “it was clear that the dinner was largely about someone who is not even running for president, at least not this year. It was more about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York senator who was the dinner’s mistress of ceremonies, and who, in coming here, began a new phase in one of the most closely watched political careers in the nation.”
Uh, not so much.
This is the convenient angle. It’s newsworthy. But it’s just not an accurate representation of what happened last night.
First off, it was notable that everyone who had a role in starting the evening — from Gov. Tom Vilsack to Sen. Tom Harkin to Sen. Hillary Clinton — made a point of saying that the next president would be one of the candidates “with us here tonight.” To those who think Clark is the Clintons’ choice, that’s an odd statement for Hillary to make. The native Iowans were clearly tweaked that fully one third of the candidates (Clark, Lieberman and Sharpton) skipped the event. And Clinton explicitly stated her support for the candidates, and spoke in such warmed-over bromides about “moving forward” and “having hope” and “looking to the future” and “supporting the people” that it was hard to distinguish from a mayoral race. Bottom line — she did a good job of setting the stage, lending support to all the candidates and helping the party raise money. All of which she was supposed to do. What she didn’t do was dominate the evening.
Who did? Well, I’m certainly biased. But here are some observations:
- Edwards had one semi-coordinated section. They spent the better part of the night trying to spell “John Edwards” with a collection of posters, but the closest they got was “Joan Enders” (or something that looked like it). On the positive side, in the gathering section for Edwards supporters, there was the following poster. I love it.
Bloggers for Edwards. Photo by Rick Klau.
- Gephardt’s supporters were nowhere to be found. For a candidate with a supposed 7 point lead in Iowa and a superior organization in Iowa, it was a shocking absence.
- Kerry’s supporters were excellent — well organized and loudly supportive. They even had cheer lines coordinated with his speech: when he asked what the country got when President Bush led us to war, they all yelled “A RAW DEAL” in unison. They were three sections in all, and did a great job of supporting their candidate. Too bad that Kerry himself appeared exhausted and going through the motions. He had a terrible week, and it appeared to have taken its toll on him.
- Kucinich’s speech was notable for its exuberant support of the other candidates. The last two minutes was dedicated to yelling that “any of the candidates tonight could…” followed by numerous statements about how we’re better than Bush. Is he laying the groundwork for an exit? (Funny side note: Doug Henk, who is part of DuPage for Dean and traveled with us, met Kucinich in the hotel lobby this morning. Showing his sense of humor, Kucinich asked Doug: “Just one question. Do you think I got my point across that I want us out of Iraq?”)
And now on to Dean. The recent National Republic profile of Joe Trippi talks about Trippi’s long history with the JJ Dinner, and the fact that at his core, Joe is an organization guy. That skill was apparent last night, with Iowa staffers wearing matching yellow t-shirts (on the back? “How’s my organizing? Call 1-866-DEAN 4 US”) and walkie-talkies with headsets to give (and take) orders in unison. When our section was found to be missing cowbells, one staffer quickly radioed to another section and our cowbells showed up. The other half of DuPage for Dean was in another section entirely; they were missing signs and got them within minutes. No other campaign had this kind of distributed organization evident throughout the hall.
Some of you may have read the CNN report about the event, where they note that we needed 43 buses to get from the afternoon rally to the JJ Dinner. (Apparently the campaign needed a parade permit from the city in order to accommodate that kind of traffic.)
Buses for Dean. Photo by Rick Klau.
But the organization goes beyond acquiring permits ahead of time: it included staffers on every bus, handing out instructions for the evening, photocopies of the chants we’d be doing and giving directions for how to behave (“Respect all who respect us” was the mantra).
A master-stroke (again likely Trippi’s idea) was having Dean get introduced while walking amongst his supporters. Each of the other campaigns walked the path set out by the organizers, and shook the same sets of hands among those fortunate enough to have seats along the path on the floor. Dean, reinforcing his “People-Powered Howard” theme, showed up not among the $1,000/table floor attendees, but among the $40/ticket balcony attendees. The crowd went wild once they figured out where he was, and you could tell Dean fed off the energy.
The real impact of all this organization was the show of force by the Dean campaign. Where Gephardt and Edwards each had one section of support, and Kerry had three, we had twelve. Not only were the cheers deafening, the matching signs and ringing cowbells were impressive.
What Doug Henk called the “Sea of Dean”. Photo by Rick Klau.
The most awe-inspiring part of the night was the unraveling of the “WIN WITH DEAN” banners that unfurled simultaneously as Dean got the crowd going with his repeated “You have the power!” line. The banners were about 30 rows long. Though you could see something going on, but it wasn’t until the people jerked them open that all at once you could see the entire section covered with one simple message: WIN WITH DEAN.
Win with Dean. Photo by Rick Klau.
Building on top of the chant that the balcony had now taken on (“WE HAVE THE POWER! WE HAVE THE POWER! WE HAVE THE POWER!”), there was no doubt who the focus of this evening was, nor what our purpose was. It was Howard Dean, not Hillary Clinton.
Walking out, my wife and I grabbed a couple of the 8’ x 4’ “DEAN | A New Day for Democrats” signs to take home. As we walked the skyway back to our hotel, we passed a number of other supporters from other campaigns. One elderly couple wearing Kerry buttons complimented us: “Your candidate gave a fantastic speech,” she said. He turned to me. “I’m just sorry I went with Kerry. When I first saw Dean, I figured he didn’t have a chance in hell. So I went with the candidate who had the credentials. And Kerry’s a good man. But in 50 years I’ve never seen the enthusiasm for a campaign like Dean’s built. Keep up the good work!”
The bottom line: if last night was any indication of where the campaigns are at (and the campaigns’ own efforts reflect their belief that it was), then here’s my assessment: Gephardt’s support is thin. He may have a majority of people willing to say they support him, but those willing to travel on his behalf to show that support are much fewer in number. (Note: this is consistent with something Roger Simon commented on regarding Gephardt’s apparent seven point lead in Iowa. Interesting.)
Kerry’s looking much stronger than the polls would indicate. And Dean is the far-and-away front-runner, with motivated and passionate supporters who are willing to do whatever it takes to win. (Proof? Last night’s JJ Dinner was the first one in Iowa’s history in which a representative from each of Iowa’s 99 counties was present. Can you guess which campaign put that together?)
What a great weekend. It was worth the long drive (11 hours in the car with two little ones!) and a night that my wife and I won’t soon forget.