WASHINGTON — I remember the precise moment when I became convinced that this presidential campaign was going to be the best I'd ever covered. It was Saturday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2007. I stood in the lobby of Hy-Vee Hall, the big convention center in Des Moines, watching an endless stream of men, women and children come down the escalators from the network of skywalks that link the downtown business blocks of Iowa's capital. They were bundled in winter coats against the chilly weather, and the mood was festive — like a tailgate party for a football game. But the lure here was not a sporting contest; it was a political rally.
Sen. Barack Obama had imported Oprah Winfrey from Chicago to make the first of her endorsement appearances. The queen of daytime television, professing her nervousness at being on a political stage, was nonetheless firm in her declaration: "I'm here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one. Barack Obama!"
It was startling that almost a year before Election Day, 18,000 people had given up their Saturday shopping time to stand (there were no chairs) and listen to an hour of political rhetoric. In all the eight Iowa caucus campaigns I'd covered over four decades, I'd never seen anything like this. In fact, I'd not seen voters so turned on since my first campaign as a political reporter, the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960.
The day after the Oprah-Obama rally, I went down to Obama's Des Moines headquarters and found Mitch Stewart, his caucus director, happily pawing through a mountain of blue, white and green cards — each bearing a name, phone number and e-mail address filled out by the people who had packed Hy-Vee Hall. A team of volunteers was beginning to sort the cards by location, distributing them among the 38 offices Stewart had already opened across Iowa. "Phoning will begin tonight," he said.
Nothing comparable was happening that Sunday at the headquarters of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, the caucus favorites, so I reported that Obama might win.
He was not the only long shot who was beginning to move — and not the only reason this race has been so enthralling.
Even earlier, right after Thanksgiving 2007, I watched a Republican debate in New Hampshire at Dartmouth College. The next day, I visited with Mike Dennehy, a young man who had become Sen. John McCain's favorite operative in the Granite State during the 2000 primary, in which McCain had upset then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Dennehy had stayed loyal to McCain after Bush won the nomination, and he was still with the senator, though most of the other campaign veterans had been thrown overboard in the summer of 2007, both perpetrators and victims of a spending spree that had left McCain penniless and seemingly without hope. Dennehy told me that something was happening in New Hampshire: The crowds at McCain's town meetings, which had earlier numbered in the 10s or 20s, had begun to grow to 50 or 100. "It's beginning to feel like 2000 again," he said.
In January of this year, you could have gotten great odds against Obama and McCain being the finalists in this election. Obama was challenging the obvious front-runner, Clinton, a former first lady and seasoned senator who had more money and better connections than anyone and offered the history-making prospect of becoming the first woman president.
As for McCain, his barriers seemed insurmountable. His angry tirade against the right-wing preachers who had backed Bush in 2000 had alienated him from that wing of the party. He had become the chief cheerleader for an unpopular war in Iraq and the chief GOP spokesman for an immigration bill that most of his party despised. There were younger, more attractive alternatives, including Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee.
But the voters — bless 'em — ignored the oddsmakers. They were determined to do their own thing — set the nation on a new course, sharply different from that of George W. Bush. It did not matter much to them that McCain was too old, by conventional standards, to be running or that Obama's mixed-race background broke the historic color line on the presidency.
It was the emergence of these two implausible but impressive candidates that gave 2008 its special stamp. But they prevailed only after fierce struggles.
A potentially captivating experience was lost when Obama declined McCain's invitation to join him in weekly town halls, to stand together and answer voters' questions. The traditional debates were lackluster affairs, with few dramatic moments.
The unspoken issue of Obama's race had flared in the primaries, in part because of Bill Clinton's campaigning and in part because the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former minister and an important mentor for 20 years, was revealed to hold incendiary antiwhite views. Obama delivered a personal, historically sophisticated address on race, as stirring as any such speech I had heard since the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, he broke completely with his minister and, thanks in large part to McCain's personal aversion to any suggestion of racial campaigning, the issue never fully emerged in a negative way this fall, sparing the country what could have been a divisive experience.
For decades, I have said that the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign was the best I ever saw. But most of the drama in that contest came after Labor Day. This time, the excitement was generously distributed over a whole year, with moments of genuine humor from Huckabee, a torrent of uninhibited conversation from McCain and Biden, and rare eloquence from Obama and both Clintons.
What a show it has been — the best campaign I've ever covered.
David Broder's e-mail address is [email protected]
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