How Iowa plotted a polite insurgency

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Barack Obama sprinted up the podium, like the basketball player he is, to the wild and enthusiastic cheers of his overwhelmingly youthful supporters. His victory speech was pitch perfect for the moment.

"They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose," he told his audience.

"But on this January night at this defining moment in history you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do; what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days; what America can do in this New Year."

Standing in the crowd, with tears of emotion rolling down his cheeks was Ben Schneider an 18-year-old college student from Maryland who had volunteered to work for the Obama campaign and had been camping out on floors for the past week. "Three of us came out and we've been staying in a place with no furniture, but it has been amazing," he said. "What I admire about Obama is that he is bringing a new type of politics into play, he works across ideological and partisan lines.

"Look, we even have Republicans working for him," he added. "All this stuff about him being too young or not having enough experience to be president is nonsense. Look at how he laid it on the line his whole life as a community organiser in Chicago, turning down high-paying corporate jobs."

"He's a genuine guy and we have never seen anyone like him in my lifetime," he added. "What we have seen here in Iowa is a grassroots local campaign on steroids."

Back in the Fort Des Moines Hotel there was a forlorn mood in the Clinton camp. There was not a single high-powered guest to be seen on the floor, until the results came out and Hillary Clinton's staff quickly ushered a crowd to appear behind her as she addressed a battery of television cameras.

Yet even hours before the voting began it was becoming clear that the game was up for Mrs Clinton. As she and her husband perfectly coiffed and wearing matching green scarves came striding through the lobby of the hotel after lunch there was a look of bleak despair on their faces. As the door of their waiting secret service limousine clunked shut, Mrs Clinton, looked towards Bill and made an angry gesture with her hands. For a woman who never tired of telling the plain folks of Iowa of the inevitability of her election as president, it was evident that as far as Iowa voters were concerned, there would be no restoration of the Clinton White House in the near future.

Yesterday there was disbelief at how an overwhelmingly white state, with a long legacy of racial bigotry, managed to choose a 46-year-old black man as its Democratic nominee for the White House by a thumping majority. The high priests of the Republican party were equally mystified as to why well-drilled party activists had opted for Mike Huckabee, an electric-guitar-playing former Baptist televangelist who was a virtual unknown until a month ago.

But as neighbours met, in church halls and schoolhouses across the state to partake in the archaic but highly democratic caucus system, it was clear that the Iowa electorate flinty, clear-eyed, and polite to a fault had insurgency in mind. Democrat or Republican, their genial nature betrayed a seething anger at what they view as the brazen incompetence of President George Bush. Other factors in the inflammatory mix were despair at the needless deaths of the country's young soldiers, fears for their own jobs, their rickety healthcare system and the future of the planet.

At the Emanuel Elementary School in Des Moines, Bill Brauch a Democrat caucus supervisor repeated over and over that the turnout was "beyond belief, absolutely beyond belief". There were, he said, 10 times more people at the school than the last time a caucus was held.

Among them was 89-year-old Jim McCollum, a former actuary. He was not in the slightest bit interested in Hillary Clinton. "I've knocked around for a bit and attended caucus meetings since the1940s" he said, "but I have never been more convinced than now that we have a real leader in Obama.'

"He's the only one not in the pocket of special interest [groups] and lobbyists and the only one who can bring about fundamental change in America's way of doing business.'

As the voters poured into the school auditorium, it was clear that the night was going to be Obama's. His supporters, as close to a cross-section of America as it is possible to find in Iowa, sat cross-legged on the stage, passing out bottles of water and checking the results from other precincts on their Mac-books and Blackberries. After the first headcount the horse-trading was supposed to begin, but with the Obama faction more than double the size of its two closest rivals, the Clinton campaign and that of the old-style left-wing populist John Edwards, a quiet victory party got under way.

Then, furiously, the Edwards camp lobbied for the votes of candidates who had not made the threshold and by the end of the evening their man had knocked the Clinton camp into third place. By the end, it was an astonishing 155 votes for Obama, 78 for Edwards and 69 for Clinton. The pattern would be repeated in hundreds of similar meetings across the thinly populated farm state.

Later as she drank from the bitter cup of defeat and congratulated her two main rivals, Mrs Clinton repeated her mantra of "change", even though she had Bill on one side and Madeleine Albright, his former secretary of state on the other.

But after coming third in Iowa, Mrs Clinton has just four days to prove she is electable. If Mr Obama wins the New Hampshire primary, the expectation is that he will also win South Carolina with its large number of black Democrats. With the wind in his sails and huge momentum generated by three consecutive victories, he will be in the best place possible on "Tsunami Tuesday" on 5 February when 22 states go to the polls in one day.

The Clinton campaign must now reassess why the combined message of experience and change made no real impression in Iowa despite bombarding the population with slick television ads until an hour before voting.

Iowans, it seems, were looking for authenticity more than experience and they found it in Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, two people who give straight answers on the important questions.

A secret service agent, a die-hard Republican who works for both the Obama and Clinton details came away from the campaign so impressed by by the former's decency that he voted for him. "He looks you in the eye, calls you by your name and says thank you," the agent confided, "Hillary just cuts you dead."

DEMOCRATS: 239,000 caucused

BARACK OBAMA 37.58 per cent

With a comprehensive win, the charismatic Illinois senator sends a message to Democrats across the US that he is the man to beat.

JOHN EDWARDS: 29.75 per cent

Second place represents something of a victory for the 2004 running mate of John Kerry.Some commentators had written him off.

HILLARY CLINTON 29.47 per cent

Suddenly it all looks rather bleak for the Democrats' matriarch. As the show shifts to New Hampshire, the former first lady has to win.

BILL RICHARDSON: 2.11 per cent

The Governor of New Mexico, Richardson is best know as a hostage negotiator and has beennominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

JOE BIDEN: 0.93 per cent

The veteran senator withdrew following this poor show. He also ran in 1988 but quit following claims that he plagiarised speeches by Neil Kinnock.

CHRIS DODD 0.02 per cent

Another faller at the first hurdle, Dodd represents Connecticut in the Senate. Like Biden, he is known as a foreign policy specialist.

REPUBLICANS: 108,000 caucused

MIKE HUCKABEE: 34.4 per cent

Before yesterday few outside Arkansas knew much about the state's Governor. But the bass guitarist is now a serious challenger for the Republican nomination.

MITT ROMNEY: 25.4 per cent

The former Massachusetts governor had been leading Iowa until last month. Romney, a Mormon, was known as a "socially liberal" Republican in office.

FRED THOMPSON: 13.4 per cent

A lawyer-turned-actor who once took on the role of president, 65-year-old Thompson now facesan uphill battle if he's to play the part in real life.

JOHN MCCAIN: 13.2 per cent

The Vietnam veteran once dubbed John "Wayne" McCain did not campaign hard in Iowa, insteadopting to focus his attention on New Hampshire.

RON PAUL: 10 per cent

A 10-term Congressman, Ron Paul is opposed to the Iraq War. His libertarian views should serve him better in the North-east than in Iowa.

RUDY GIULIANI: 3.5 per cent

The former New York mayor was another who gave Iowa something of a body swerve. Despite that, trailing in last has dented his campaign.