Starting Gate: Obama Wows 'Em In Iowa

The Barack Obama boomlet has apparently begun. The Illinois senator is getting rave reviews for his speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night.

Want the evidence? Here's what Iowa's premier political handicapper, David Yepsen, had to say on his Des Moines Register blog about the speech: "It was one of the best of his campaign. The passion he showed should help him close the gap on Hillary Clinton by tipping some undecided caucus-goers his way. His oratory was moving and he successfully contrasted himself with the others - especially Clinton - without being snide or nasty about it. … Should he win the Iowa caucuses, Saturday's dinner will be remembered as one of the turning points in his campaign in here."

Since Clinton stumbled in the last debate, there has been an air of anticipation surrounding Obama and John Edwards. Would one of them capitalize on the slip and begin to emerge as the alternative to Clinton's seeming march to the nomination? Sure, it's one event, one speech and plenty of road left before the January caucuses. And Obama faces big questions about his strategy. Although all accounts point to a strong organization in the state, it's not at all a slam-dunk that the campaign can harness its support among young and non-traditional caucus-goers, especially just two days after New Years.

Still, it's hard to miss the hype over Obama's candidacy lately. He's managed to be aggressive without being negative for now. Most importantly, his stepped up criticisms of Clinton looks to have answered questions about whether Obama has the mettle to go the distance. After being out-raised by Clinton in the third quarter of this year, and poll after poll outside of Iowa showing the New York Senator with a commanding lead, Obama's campaign appeared to stall. Now, he's reviving his pitch for change – not just in the party controlling the White House but a more fundamental brand.

"If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, then we can't live in fear of losing," Obama told Iowa Democrats. "This party, the party of Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt and Kennedy, has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led not by polls but by principle, not by calculation but by conviction, when we summoned the entire nation to . . . a higher purpose."

Obama rose to national prominence based partly on his rhetorically soaring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. For much of this year, he's not repeated that performance. If he can build on his speech this weekend, the Obama boomlet may yet turn into something resembling the movement his candidacy has promised.

Clinton Support Slips In New Hampshire: Iowa may have dominated the political landscape over the weekend but don't forget about that other important early state – New Hampshire. While the January 3rd caucuses will go a long way toward setting the table for New Hampshire's primary, the two states haven't always agreed on their candidates. And the Granite State has a recent history of sending a message to the front-runners, especially in the GOP contests.

John McCain thrashed George Bush in 2000 and Pat Buchanan defeated Bob Dole there in 1996. In 1992, New Hampshire made Bill Clinton the "comeback kid" but in 2004, the state validated John Kerry's Iowa victory. While the primary date is still not set, the betting is that New Hampshire will vote on January 8th, giving the candidates just five days to either capitalize on their Iowa victories or to correct course.

A new poll shows a fluid contest in both parties. Hillary Clinton, who has held a much larger lead in New Hampshire than Iowa, has seen her support slip nearly 10 points since September in the Boston Globe poll. The poll shows the front-runner with a still-healthy lead over Obama, 35 percent to 21 percent. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney leads Rudy Giuliani 32 percent to 20 percent with McCain at 17 percent. A Marist College poll showed similar results.

Campaign Intrigue: Sometimes a there's more than curiosity behind the questions on the campaign trail. The Clinton campaign has acknowledged that a student at Grinnell College in Iowa was approached by a staffer who suggested she ask the candidate a question about climate change. "One of the senior staffers told me what [to ask]," Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff said after the question and answer session. "On this occasion a member of our staff did discuss a possible question about Sen. Clinton's energy plan at a forum," spokesman Mo Elleithee said. "However, Sen. Clinton did not know which questioners she was calling on during the event. This is not standard policy and will not be repeated again."

Don't look for this to die down anytime soon as it's especially good fodder for her opponents. Edwards seized on the revelation with this criticism: "George Bush goes to events that are staged where people are screened where they're only allowed to ask questions if the questions are favorable to george bush and set up in his favor. That's not the way democracy works in Iowa. And that's not the way it works in New Hampshire. ... And we don't stage questions. We go in and answer the questions that are asked. And that's the way it's supposed to work in the caucus process. And I think this is the kind of thing George Bush himself has done."

Around The Track

  • Clinton and Giuliani are maintaining their large leads in Florida. Clinton leads Obama 48 percent to 24 percent while Giuliani bests Romney 36 percent to 19 percent in a new poll conducted for a consortium of Florida media outlets. Florida's primary is slated for January 19th.
  • Romney tells New Hampshire voters that he's unlikely to deliver a speech about his religion – at least for now. "I'm happy to answer any questions people have about my faith and do so pretty regularly," Romney said about the attention given to his Mormon faith. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no — it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone."
  • Fred Thompson is stepping up the pace and trying to shake the perception that he doesn't have the fire-in-the-belly for a winning campaign.
  • Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet caught up with Clinton booster Terry McAuliffe at the J-J dinner in Iowa and the former DNC chair had words of warning for Clinton's primary opponents. "They want to get negative against us, they want to get frisky, that's their decision," he said. "I tell you this, though. You go negative at your peril. In Iowa they don't like it."
  • Rudy, Hillary and Mitt – why are we on a first-name basis with so many of our presidential candidates?