My GPS unit is losing its suction power. As I drive through the streets of Des Moines, breaking over a patch of ice here or there, the thing keeps falling off my windshield, tumbling to the floor and flickering off.
My first day in this city has provided a humbling lesson not so much in how to cover a presidential race as in how to drive a car. In the process of making my way to a Hillary Clinton event 120 miles west of this city, I've driven the wrong way down a one-way street, traveled in a complete circle in search of a highway and ended up back at my hotel to use the bathroom 40 minutes after my departure. It has been a brilliant start.
I have come to Iowa on a mental vacation. I'm a television reporter seeking refuge in the written word, unburdened by cameras, cameramen, sound bites or satellites. As the Iowa caucuses grew closer, I realized that this was the only place on earth where I truly belonged. And so I've run away to join the media circus.
Yet without the comfort and support of a crew, I am an army of one, and a losing one thus far. For some reason, a higher power is preventing me from getting beyond a 10-square block radius of the Downtown Marriott. A friend from The New York Times will tell me later that the city has been so frenetically re-built in recent years that satellite maps haven't kept up with its changing geography. But on this cold Sunday morning, all I know is that my GPS machine, my electronic beacon, is sending me in circles, and keeps falling on the floor.
I am trying to get into the swing of things on my first day. So I've downloadedbook "Dreams From My Father" to my laptop and purchased a device that has it playing on my car stereo. As I drive in search of I-235, the voice of Obama himself fills the air, describing in detail an absent father and nurturing mother.
He explains at the outset that his mother passed away a few months after the book's initial publication. He suggests, surprisingly, that her death caused him to wonder if he had written a book about the wrong parent.
"She managed her illness with grace and good humor, and helped my sister and me push on with our lives despite our dread, our denials, our sudden constrictions of the heart.
"In my daughters I see her every day - her joy, her capacity for wonder. I know she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and I know what is best in me I owe to her."
I am fighting an increasingly frustrating battle to find a highway, but I suddenly find myself choked up. I've yet to even see Obama here, but he is already having his effect on me.
Soon, I am racing down a highway in a dash to make up for lost time. It is 11:30 a.m., and the Clinton event in Council Bluffs is slated for noon. My GPS gives me momentary hope: It is estimating that I will arrive in 13 minutes.
But as I turn onto I-80 West, the voice of the British GPS lady informs me I have 96 miles to go. I peer back at the gizmo and realize that the arrival screen has been stuck at 13 minutes, 33 seconds for almost 20 minutes.
The jumble of directions and anxiety over arriving late obscures Obama's narrative, and I turn on some gospel music. But my mind meanders back to him. The man is enormously thoughtful, and has examined his search for identity with refreshing honesty. But why is that an asset for a presidential candidate? What good does it do us to have a leader so deeply in touch with his feelings?
All that's terrified us about Iraq and Iran this year has suddenly vanished from view. It may be temporary, but the diminishing of public anxiety has been a disaster for, the protector, and a setback for , with all her years at the White House. And it's been a boon to relatively untested candidates like Obama and . All the same, though, it would be nice to know that there's a little inner Rudy in whoever becomes our next president, hungry to snuff out the bad guys who'd do us harm.
Does Barack Obama have a killer instinct? Could we sleep soundly knowing he was in charge? I don't care how much momentum he has these days; there's no way he's going to become president if he can't put that question to rest.
On the radio, the gospel choir is singing "We are going to make it!" They're imploring me to push on.
Hillary On The Stump
I arrive in Council Bluffs at 1:29 p.m., hoping after a 120-mile drive that Hillary Clinton is running as late as I am.
The sun is shining on this snowy little town, and two woman are smiling as they leave the high school where the event is being held. I ask if Clinton is still inside. "She's been talking for 40 minutes," one says. "She's wonderful."
And there she is, inside this spectacular indoor setting, speaking in front of a giant American flag hanging from a giant brick wall bathed by sunlight. All the light is giving the place the super-lit feel of a Hollywood set, with Clinton the star.
"I'll take a few more questions," she says. Ten minutes later, after a long disquisition about No Child Left Behind, it's over.
It is, thankfully, just stop one among many, and an hour later the Clinton road show arrives at the Dunlap Livestock Auction, about 40 miles away.
There are pick-up trucks outside, and the barn-like structure smells of manure inside. About 250 locals are gathered around a pen where cattle is paraded around for the inspection of ranchers. It's an odd stage for the most famous woman in the world, but it's the closest thing to a community house this town has.
Last week had been a period of wretched news for Clinton, as everyone knows by now, and the indications out of her camp on this Sunday morning is that she's about to launch a fresh offensive. It's reported that she'll attempt to bump Obama off the reformer's pedestal with calls for "change" and "a new beginning."