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A whole new rodeo in IA

From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
DES MOINES, IA -- Iowa didn't look like this three weeks ago.

Today, a glowing Richardson waded into a screaming crowd of over 500 to the spine-tingling guitar jangling of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." Last week, crowds of national reporters jostled for seats when Biden held a press conference in Des Moines after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. And McCain packed 'em in eastern Iowa earlier this week. 

For those of you just tuning in now, this is a whole new rodeo.

A breathtaking velocity of campaign frenzy and media coverage has been whirling around candidates like Obama and Clinton for weeks. For top-tierers who routinely attract hundreds to rallies, it's not out of the ordinary to see a tangle of network cameras elbowing through crowds to catch the money entrance shot as a pumping soundtrack fills the ears of cheering supporters.

To see the same at a Richardson event is stunning.

Perhaps even more so than for the rock star contenders, it has all come down to this. Barring a narrative twist of Hitchcockian proportions, a finish less than third place means the end of the plot for those on the Junior Varsity. With the prospects of a major meltdown by one of the leading candidates dimming by the hour, their sole hope now is to harness the elusive and revered momentum that could galvanize supporters who would be in their corner if they only thought their guy had a fighting chance.

Well, "harness" might be the wrong verb for it. In some ways, the momentum game is about creating an illusion of forward motion and praying that the hope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the descent of the national media upon Iowa, smart campaigns are choreographing events to make sure that the press asks themselves whether or not the Big Mo might be waiting in the wings. That means a doubling of efforts to fill campaign events with an impressive turnout, and a crescendoing of the candidate's message with a forceful fire-up-the-troops closing argument. 

(Smart second-tier campaigns would also be advised to hover close to Des Moines if they want pronouncements of insurgency from journalistic opinion leaders -- the smartest minds in news might drop by an event down the block from their hotel rooms to see Dodd or Thompson, but they sure ain't driving to Fort Dodge for it.)

Oh, and U2 songs don't hurt either.