The Oprah Winfrey Show (and Obama was there too)

The charismatic Democrat with his eye on the presidency would normally take centre-stage but not when the queen of American daytime television is on the same bill. Leonard Doyle reports from Des Moines on a powerful political partnership
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The Independent US

"Oh my goodness, at last, I'm here." So spoke Oprah Winfrey, the queen of afternoon TV as nervously at first, she dipped her toe into American politics and threw her celebrity behind the resurgent campaign of Barack Obama.

Arctic conditions held Iowa in its grip over the weekend, but the freezing snow and dangerous roads could not hold people back from seeing Oprah Winfrey, in person. There was the added bonus of seeing the candidate who is now threatening to pull off one of the most audacious upsets in recent political history by coming from behind to win in Iowa and go on to become the first African-American nominee for the presidency.

But aside from the thrill of the political moment, most people who trudged through the snow on Saturday afternoon had Oprah on their mind. They had come for what Mr Obama's political enemies called the "Oprahpalooza," the pulling power of an A-list star that his campaign hopes to turn into votes.

Striding across the stage of the Iowa Events Centre she faced the largest and undoubtedly most enthusiastic crowd to have gathered in the state, which has been mobbed by candidates and celebrity politicians such as Bill Clinton for almost a year. At least 12,000 people crowded into the Iowa Events Centre. Many of the multi-ethnic crowd were just of a votable age, and a majority of them were women.

A little earlier in the day, America's other famous woman held a rally in the quaint town of Winterset, best known for its covered wooden bridges and the tear-jerker movie, The Bridges of Madison County. But in the picture-postcard setting only 100 or so people turned out to see Mrs Clinton.

If Barack Obama wins in Iowa as the polls suggest he will in the first contest in the 2008 presidential election in January it will in no small measure be due to the message delivered by Winfrey in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy.

"For the very first time in my life, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out for the man who I believe has a new vision for America," Winfrey said. "I am not here to tell you what to think. I am here to ask you to think - seriously - about a man who knows who we are and who we can be." She admitted being nervous about stepping into the world of political endorsements. "I feel like I'm out of my pew," she said in her prepared speech. "Backstage, someone asked me if I'm nervous," Winfrey said. "You're damn right I'm nervous."

But with Michelle Obama looking on she quickly got into her stride and using the vast emotional range for which she is renowned. "I came because I care about this country," she said, "this is a critical moment in our nation's history and there are times when I worry about what is happening. That is why for the first time in my life, I feel compelled to speak out for the man that I believe has a new vision for America."

She explained that not only has she never endorsed a candidate, but that she had voted for the Republicans as often as for the Democrats: "But this is very, very personal."

Every day at 4pm, millions of American women rush home from their factory shifts and office jobs to tune into Oprah. Winfrey drew laughter as she joked that she wasn't there to give out free cars and refrigerators as she has on her daytime talk show. Then she looked out as though speaking to one of her afternoon guests and said: "We have a lot of problems to discuss, problems we all know about, problems that must be addressed by the country." Winfrey did not mention either President Bush or Mrs Clinton by name, but she made her feeling known about how she felt about Mrs Clinton's refrain that Mr Obama does not have the experience to be president when she voted to authorise the war in Iraq: "The amount of time you spend in Washington means nothing unless you are accountable for the judgment you made," Winfrey said. Driving the stiletto home, she said that Mr Obama "stood with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq".

The event in Des Moines was the first of several appearances Winfrey is making for Mr Obama. She flew to the city of Cedar Rapids on Saturday evening for a similar event and then spoke yesterday before a crowd of 80,000 people at a football stadium in South Carolina. Today, she will be in New Hampshire, where the second crucial test of the 2008 election runs on 8 January.

As the primaries approach, Mrs Clinton has seen her commanding lead in the opinion polls wither away. In Iowa, Mr Obama has a six-point lead and he is nudging into the lead in New Hampshire. But both states have a reputation as giant-killers and where a volatile electorate can turn an outsider into a national champion overnight. Although he leads in Iowa, it is in fact a three-horse race between Mrs Clinton, the populist southerner John Edwards and Mr Obama. What matters is how organised and motivated their campaigns are and how effectively they can persuade people to vote on election night.

In the depths of Iowa's winter, it takes a dedicated voter to volunteer to spend the best part of an evening at a local elementary school arguing for his or her candidate. After the first head count is taken, supporters of the candidate with less than 15 per cent of the vote, throw their weight behind one of the leading candidates.

It is the votes of the "second-tier" candidates that usually decide who wins the caucus. Mr Edwards has a lot of support from the trade union movement where there is a long tradition of coming out to caucus. Mrs Clinton's campaign is also known for its determination and effectiveness. The question being asked in Iowa is whether the newly forming army of Obama supporters will know or even bother to caucus on the night.

Another question mark over his campaign is the questionable support for his campaign from women and the African American community. Mrs Clinton is hugely admired by women voters, but Winfrey's dramatic appearance on the campaign trail was designed to put a sharp dent in that carefully cultivated political advantage. Great things are expected from the Oprah effect, especially in Iowa where her talk show's has its second highest ratings nationwide.

Mr Obama's poor showing in the African American community may also be changing, if the evidence of Saturday afternoon is anything to go by. Helen Young is 73, but she was not only determined to see her idol Winfrey in person, but she has every intention of going to the caucus, and bringing her extended family along with her.

"He is just a sincere and fantastic man," she said, "we will all be out to support him." Her daughter Lori, said she was struck by the excitement the Obama campaign had generated among the young.

"I can't believe it, she said, "suddenly everyone is excited by politics, what is going on." What matters now is the ground war being fought in voting precincts across Iowa. Sharon young of who designs and sells political buttons at every event she can go to says she is hugely impressed by the Obama campaign.

"His ground operation is extraordinary; it operates like a business, complete with a marketing strategy, straight out of business school." She has seen him speak dozens of times and always makes a point of getting to his events. "He is just such an extraordinary orator, with such passion," she said. Who then is she supporting in the 2008 election? "Oh I don't know, I'm a huge fan of Hillary Clinton as well. My dream is to have Hillary and Obama on the same ticket, but that's not going to happen. Inside in the auditorium Winfrey cited more reasons for supporting her friend Mr Obama's accomplishments. She mentioned his days as a community organiser when he helped people in Chicago who had been laid off from the steel industry. She mentioned his years as a state senator before he became the Senator for Illinois. And then to thunderous applause she praised his early decision to oppose the war in Iraq.

He spoke out "long before it was the popular thing to do," she said as 12,000 voices roared back their approval. "There are those who say that Barack Obama should wait his turn. There are those who say that he should take a gradual approach to presidential leadership, but none of us is God," Winfrey said. "We don't know what the future holds, so we must respond to the pressures and the fortunes of history when the moment strikes. And Iowa, I believe that moment is now."

It was only then that Mr Obama took the stage. A voice shouted up from the crowd that he should make Winfrey his running mate for the vice -presidency. "That would be a demotion," he replied.