One day, three candidates

Amy Hermsen was looking over Hillary Clinton around midday and planned to check out Barack Obama late in the afternoon. The undecided Cedar Rapids Democrat knew she was running out of time Wednesday.

“I’ll know by the end of the day,” she said,  with some uncertainty. 

As extraordinary as it might seem after months of intense campaigning, I found a lot of people at dueling Clinton and Obama campaign events in Cedar Rapids who still had not made a final choice. A few said they might not know until they get to the caucuses.  No wonder this thing has become a historic crap shoot.

If passion and electricity count for anything, Obama’s camp seems poised for something big.

He drew a large, enthusiastic crowd to Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium and fired them up with as good a stump speech as you’ll ever hear a candidate deliver. I can’t help but think every time I hear this guy that he’s the only candidate in either party with the political skills and message to become a mandate candidate, someone who might get more than 50.1 percent of the vote. Maybe I’m naive or crazy, but there’s got to be some reason so many Republicans I know are scared that he just might win the nomination, and then go all hope-and-unity on their cranky cadre of gloom dealers.

But Obama’s crowd is overwhelmingly young, and that makes his caucus night hopes uncertain. When he asks for a show of hands from anyone who will be attending a caucus for the first time, I swear more than half of the people in the room raise their hands. In the past, a lot of those intrigued newbies haven’t bothered to show.

Obama acknowledges his youth movement has its doubters.

“The question is, are you going to prove them wrong?” he asks, prompting affirmative screams and whoops.

Then he asks who’s still undecided, and quite a few hands go back up.

“We’ve still got some live ones here,” Obama says. “We’ve got you now in our sights.”

At Kirkwood Community College earlier in the day, Clinton’s crowd is smaller but looks more like a typical group of Iowa caucusgoers — middle aged and older folks who don’t whoop and cheer with pep rally abandon. But chances are they’ll show up Thursday night come hell or high water.

There wasn’t a lot of electricity, but Clinton delivered a solid closing argument. The bottom line — I’m tough and tested and ready to become president on day one, and some other guys you might have heard of are not. Sure, she mispronounced Sen. Rob Hogg’s name. Sure, her microphone cut out twice for lengthy periods. She was unfazed.

“I’m not easily deterred, but it’s hard to be heard,” Clinton quipped, sans mic, while her staffers scattered to check plugs and shoot pained looks at each other.

Clinton’s campaign is also still in full control mode. I struck up a conversation with a Yale law school classmate of Clinton’s who came all the way from Miami to work for her campaign at crunch time. We hadn’t talked long when a young, brisk intern pulled the woman aside to remind her it’s not OK to talk with reporters.

Before we were cut off, the woman said Hillary is “terrific.” Not the kind of thing you want in print, to be sure.

One advantage the Clinton campaign has around here is Rep. Swati Dandekar. She was telling me about her efforts to tip undecideds when a campaign staffer told her about a wavering voter seated in the crowd. Dandekar swiftly strode in to see what she could do.

In between Clinton and Obama, I checked out Mitt Romney’s brief stop at The Eastern Iowa Airport. About 50, maybe as many as 75, people showed up to see the ever-polished Romney get introduced by the slouchy former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Illinois.  

Nothing Romney said was remarkable, except that he mentioned the word “change” numerous times in his short remarks. That included one really curious line.

“I think you’re going to see more change in the next 10 years then we’ve seen in the last 10 centuries,” Romney said. Not even Obama is promising that much change.

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