From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
With a super-newsy Des Moines Register poll out, here are a few observations -- for whatever they're worth -- on what I've seen on the ground about the two new leaders in the state: Obama and Huckabee.
Obama's new slot at the top has a host of possible causes and factors. But here's one: As someone originally inclined to believe that Obama's massive productions at the Harkin Steak Fry and the Jefferson-Jackson dinner were mostly smoke and mirrors, I am officially (and somewhat begrudgingly) admitting that, here in Iowa, there's some real backbone to his organization.
Last week, I went to an Obama campaign event that featured brief remarks by Michelle Obama and the official opening of a new field office in West Des Moines. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable about the event, which attracted 60 or 70 people who waited outside in the frigid afternoon for the senator's wife to speak. But what I did notice was this: the young staffers running the event knew most of the attendees personally (and vice versa). When the lead staffer thanked each of her colleagues by name at the beginning of the program, supporters cheered and shouted out things like "We love you, Luke!"
This probably doesn't seem all that noteworthy, but it might be a hint of an important distinction between the Obama campaign and the failed presidential bid of Howard Dean in 2004. Pundits compare the two campaigns frequently, and with reason: Obama, like Dean, is a change candidate with a foundation of support in youth and netroots communities. Dean's campaign fell apart because -- among other things -- it was "made of sand," as one longtime Iowa statesman here put it. Its manpower was entirely disconnected from grassroots activists, and supporters had little allegiance to keep them in the fold when the going got tough. But Obama supporters appear to have a genuine personal fondness for the young campaign workers who have clearly laid down roots in this community. (This is also evidenced, by the way, when Obama thanks his field organizers at the beginning of every town hall, as he always does. Crowds almost always appear to know the young person with the clipboard who Obama points out by name.)
The same thing happened when I went to an bema-sponsored caucus training in Knoxville, IA earlier this week. Staffers packed 37 people into a tiny office to teach them what the big night in January will look like. They knew almost all of the participants by name, most of whom were first-time caucus-goers who brought their spouses and friends in tow. Moreover, the mock caucus was FUN -- they voted on PIES instead of actual candidates for a goofy twist -- and the participants came away less intimidated by the whole process.
It's not clear that this affection and connectness is mirrored in all of the 1,700-odd precincts in Iowa, and it's likely that rival campaigns have equally dedicated and beloved organizers in the field as well. But I came away from both organizational events with a pretty strong sense that these true believers aren't going to disappear on caucus night -- unless their candidate does something truly catastrophic between now and then. He might not gain the votes he needs to win Iowa, but my sense is that he's not at the high risk of losing support that one might have imagined a few months ago. Their sense of membership in the Obama movement, cultivated by these bright-eyed young field organizers, seems awfully strong.
As is probably obvious, the same can't be said for Huckabee. Republicans, in general, do far less "touches" between the campaign and voters, and the Huckabee camp in particular appears to be flying by the seats of their pants. Their candidate is EXTREMELY media savvy, but he's still got an uphill battle on the ground. Watch the trip here on Monday and Tuesday closely -- it's much more oriented towards TV pictures than it is towards real retail politicking. And Huckabee's staff here simply doesn't have the time or resources to be putting rubber to the road in the same way you'll see from Romney (whose campaign uses a traveling bank of cell phones to nimbly move around the state for evening phone-calling efforts).
I won't say go so far as to say that Huck's support is soft, but it's fair to assume that he probably doesn't have the organizational backbone in place now to fend off a devastating hit by a rival campaign. Buzz has served him very well, and his charm and good humor is largely accountable for this surge, but he simply hasn't invested the time yet for the key ingredient -- LOYALTY -- to make those numbers hard enough to withstand attacks.
And attacks will come -- probably from Team Romney -- and they'll fall on the receptive ears of pragmatic Iowan social conservatives who hate Rudy with a passion. There are already loud whispers that a Huckabee victory here would be a dream for Giuliani. I would be surprised if there WASN'T a concerted effort within the conservative community, obvious or otherwise, to take Huckabee down in the name of supporting the more organized and electable social conservative in Mitt Romney.