In the Arena

Accordian Update

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Des Moines

Ok, so here’s how the candidates performed in Cedar Rapids on their last day of campaigning….

Clinton was very strong. She is, without a doubt, the most improved speaker of this election cycle. Her stump speech is a welter of statistics and details–50,000 Iowa children are currently on SCHIP; 50,000 more would have become eligible if Bush hadn’t vetoed the bill. She speaks softly, pacing slowly back and forth across the stage like a lioness. First, she goes through her past works, using specific programs that she fought for and won, going back all the way to her days working for the Children’s Defense Fund (guaranteed public education for children with disabilities), through her time in the White House… but with special emphasis on her work with Republicans in the Senate, particularly on veterans issues (guaranteeing health care for national guard and reserves members, for example). Then she moves to the issues in the campaign. She describes her health care plan, sells her alternative energy plan as a jobs program, gets a strong reaction on her college aid ideas. She talks about foreign policy–and has now adopted Obama’s idea of withdrawing “a brigade or two” from Iraq per month. But she also talks about how difficult a withdrawal under fire is, and how carefully it has to be managed.

She closes with a line about how tough it’s going to be to win against the Republicans, “But they’ve been going after me for 16 years and I’m still standing,” which wins a standing ovation–a difficult feat for many of the (extremely) elderly people in her crowd.

Romney seems depressed. His crowd can be measured in the dozens, creating a vast empty, echoey space in the aircraft hangar where his event is held. A young observer thinks that he looks like “Adam West” in “Family Guy.” The performance–which I’ll have more to say about in my print column– is synthetic, sterile and brief. No policy details, but it’s interesting: he’s talking about Democratic issues–alternative energy, education, health care–amidst the low taxes and “marriage is between a man and a woman” boilerplate. I suspect the general election will be played on the Democrats’ side of the field. The difference between the size of the Democratic and Republican crowds out here is just stunning. Hillary had maybe 500…

Obama has about 1000 in a downtown Cedar Rapids auditorium–and suddenly the demographic nature of the election becomes clear. It’s the geezers against the whippersnappers. Obama’s crowd is as young as Clinton’s is old. When the candidate asks how many of them will be attending their first caucus, a forest of hands go up. When he asks how many are still undecided, about 50 or so are raised. For all that, Obama’s speech is a disappointment–not nearly as substantive as Clinton’s and rather defensive. He tries to convince the crowd that he has lots of experience. Didn’t work for me. And he has this lame riff about how Washington wants to “stew” the “hope” out of him. (But I should add that it’s equally lame for Clinton to knock Obama for “hoping for change” when her husband’s closing line in his acceptance speech was, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” And the line was her line.)

Now it’s on to Edwards and John Mellencamp at the Val Air ballroom…

Update: Several readers wonder if I heard Mitt Romney say that George Bush had “freed us from our dependence on foreign oil.” I heard him start to say it, then realize he had jumbled two thoughts….because he then talked about the need to free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil. The gaffe was just a gaffe…I didn’t give a second thought because I remember thinking at that moment: “If this guy gets the nomination he’s going to say he has an alternative energy program, but it probably won’t involve any real teeth, like a serious cap and trade emissions program, routing the proceeds of oil company tax breaks to research in alternative fuels or forcing higher mileage standards out of the auto industry.” I don’t think his slip of the tongue has any significance at all; I think his slippery cast of mind, his ability to hoodwink people into thinking he’s serious about energy independence if he wins the nomination is a far greater concern.