DES MOINES -- Yes, I know a report on the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner should be all about Hillary Clinton. But there was plenty else going on, so let's save her for dessert.
• John Kerry's campaign had the feel of a campaign that was, well, once the frontrunner. His supporters had T-shirts on touting him as "The Real Deal." Written in yellow chalk on the sidewalk outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium were the words "Date Dean. Marry Kerry." Just inside the doors of the Vet were big blown-up black and white photographs of Kerry with a shotgun (for hunting, not weddings), Kerry in his Navy whites, Kerry with police officers behind him, Kerry with John McCain, Kerry with Bill Clinton, etc. His pre-event rally featured a group of very talented high school drummers. In the hotel atrium, however, the noise was deafening. Later in the rally, five gentlemen took to the stage and peeled off their T-shirts to reveal a blue letter on each of their torsos. They, of course, spelled out K-E-R-R-Y. Guess he's sewn up the Seinfeld-Hockey vote.
• Somewhat spooky moment: At the Kerry rally, Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell said, "This country's foreign relations are the worst they've been in my lifetime." That's remarkable, given that he's nearly 70.
• Very spooky moment: During her speech, a former Senator from Illinois said, "We're gonna show the American people that George Orwell wrote fiction, not prophecy. And we will get our civil liberties back. We will repeal the Patriot Act. We will make certain that you have privacy in your home, you will have privacy with what you read, you will be able to think again." Welcome to planet Moseley Braun!
• Surreal moment: To help Iowa Democrats raise money, Leonard Boswell auctioned off Senator Tom Harkin's necktie. It went for $600. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was the buyer.
• Freudian slip of the campaign: Governor Vilsack ended his speech by sounding the "the right-wing is questioning our patriotism" note. He urged everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, pointed to the flag and said, "They're not gonna take it away from us!" He then recited the Pledge and left out the word "indivisible."
• Howard Dean is the indisputable frontrunner, and Saturday night erased whatever trifle of doubt anyone might have. He managed to upstage all the other candidates twice. C-Span viewers would have seen his act when the candidates were introduced. Rather than head toward the stage, Dean stood in the upper-deck of the Vet. As attention focused up toward Dean, he played it for all it was worth, thrusting his index fingers into the air as if to say, "I'm numero uno! I'm on the top looking down!" It was the highlight of the evening.
Earlier there was Dean's entrance into the Vet. Just inside the auditorium doors a crowd of Dean supporters stood on the right side chanting, "We Want Dean!" A crowd of Richard Gephardt supporters stood on the left side chanting, "Go Dick Go!" Dean then entered the Vet on the Gephardt side. Hi supporters quickly overwhelmed the Gephardt ones. Intent or accident? Your call.
• Near the sidewalk I encountered a draft Hillary activist named Bob Kunst, who runs Hillary Now. Kunst clearly is a weathered veteran of the left who has spent many years in the political trenches. Hailing from Florida, Kunst ran for Governor last year as an independent on the "stolen election" issue and received 42,000 votes. Indeed, Kunst says: "The stolen election issue is one the resonates voters wherever I've been, and could be a big one in this campaign." Yet if he is going to run a campaign to draft a Clinton, he needs to be a bit more careful with his campaign paraphernalia. One of his buttons had "oral history" printed on it.
• On the steps of the Vet, I met Adam Parkhomenko, an 18-year-old college student who is head of another such effort, this one called Draft Hillary. Why he couldn't get together with Kunst's effort wasn't entirely clear; Parkhomenko said Kunst didn't want to, Kunst dismissed Parkhomenko as inexperienced. However, Draft Hillary is the "official" draft Hillary organization because, unlike Kunst, Parkhomenko has filed papers with the Federal Elections Commission. He thought that the most likely scenario is that none of the candidates will get enough delegates to sew up the nomination. With a deadlocked convention, the pressure to draft Hillary would mount. "She's said she won't run," Parkhomenko stated, "but she never said she wouldn't accept being drafted." No letter to Colonel Holmes in her background.
A few moments of Hillary's speech did seem like a speech a candidate gives when she is about to enter the race: "We make a very specific critique of this administration…But we have to do more than criticize. We have to stand for the best values of the Democratic Party. We have to have a vision for where we want to lead this country. And I believe that if we do that, we will lay the groundwork for the people of this great nation to elect a Democrat."
However, in other parts, she did everything to avoid upstaging the Democratic candidates, speaking glowingly of all of them: "I think everybody here knows that tonight marks the beginning of a campaign that leads one of our best Democrats that we've produced in years to the White House." She rarely mentioned her husband's administration, and then only to denigrate the Bush presidency and to point out how much better a Democratic one would be.
There also seemed to be genuine joy that Hillary had come to Iowa. With one exception, none of the Democrats I talked to off the record expressed even the slightest concern that she was upstaging the announced candidates. Rather they expressed sentiments similar to what the official press spokespeople did:
Laura Capps, spokeswoman for John Kerry: "She's a great asset who helps brings more national attention to Democrats."
Kim Ruby, spokeswoman for John Edwards: "Her purpose here is helping Iowa Democrats raise money."
Donald Kaniewski, political director for the Laborers' International Union, and a Gephardt supporter: "Hillary adds star power and builds excitement for us."
So what, exactly, was Hillary doing? Well, clearly Hillary did bring much attention to the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner, and no doubt the Iowa Democrats raised far more money Saturday night than if Hillary had not shown up. She was gracious and supportive of all the candidates. In so doing she has likely won the gratitude of Iowa Democrats. What better way to set herself up as the frontrunner for the Iowa Caucuses -- of 2008?
By making the Iowa Jefferson Jackson dinner her entry into the 2008 campaign, she may be transforming presidential campaigns, much like her husband did. In the 1990s, campaigns for the next presidential election began almost literally on the day after the last election. Now it seems that the presidential campaign for the next election begins before the next election.
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