Politics & Government

Obama strains to turn it up a notch in Iowa, as the clock ticks

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Oprah's pulling for him now, he's raking in historic levels of campaign cash and his fans still freak out as if they'd just seen Elvis.

But Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has a potential problem now that Labor Day has come and gone. The first-term senator from Illinois has been stuck about 20 points behind front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in national polls and appears to be lagging even in South Carolina, a key early primary state, despite its large proportion of black voters, whom he's counting on there.

So he spent two days this week in Iowa angling to catch up. Iowa's caucuses four months from now make it the first state to choose party presidential nominees. Polls there show Obama within five points of Clinton and within three of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a frequent visitor since his 2004 run.

"I know that many of you are still shopping for a candidate," Obama told about 300 residents of Maquoketa, population 6,100, who gathered at a park on Thursday morning to hear him. "But it's September now. You can feel that little chill in the air. It's time for us to really make some decisions."

This has been war week in Washington, with Army Gen. David Petraeus' report to Congress on Iraq, the 9/11 anniversary and President Bush's Thursday night speech to the nation.

So Obama's theme at town hall forums like this one across eastern Iowa is that he always opposed the Iraq war — unlike Clinton and Edwards — and that he has the most detailed plan to withdraw combat troops and turn up diplomacy. "That's the kind of experience that counts," he said.

His pitch seemed to reinforce those who've already decided to back him, and it may have nudged some voters who are still trying to make up their minds — but it didn't seem to win him many converts outright.

Karen Thomas, 65, a retired shop owner, said she likes Obama "a lot," and it bothers her some that Clinton and Edwards came late to their anti-war positions. "I felt it was opportune," she said of their timing.

Even so, she said, as it stands now, "they're all for getting out."

So who will she back? "There's time yet. I hate to commit at this point."

Mary Britton, 56, an office manager, said she's considering Obama because her favorite, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, can't seem to break into the top tier. She also worries that Clinton might lose the general election because Republicans hate her and her husband, Bill, the former president, so much.

But Obama has yet to convince Britton that he's ready.

She left a town hall meeting that drew more than 1,000 participants Wednesday night in Davenport, saying, "I still didn't get the good answers I wanted.

"I think he would know how to do all the right things as far as negotiating, talking with other countries and that kind of thing," Britton said. "But there's just some insider stuff in Washington that you gotta know to get things done, and I just don't think he knows that."

Obama said Thursday that he isn't worried about polls: "As you can see we've got plenty of support everywhere we go." His communications director, Robert Gibbs, said the national polls are meaningless because once early states start voting, everything changes.

But Arthur Sanders, chairman of the political science department at Iowa's Drake University, said Obama must fight the perception that Clinton is putting a safe distance between herself and him, her strongest rival.

"He needs to catch up to Hillary nationally," Sanders said. "He needs to start in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's trying to figure out a way to spread that very strong support he gets, and this seems like a reasonable way to try to do it."

Many of the die-hard Obama fans who flocked to this week's forums said that while his war stance is certainly part of why they support him, it's not what put him over the top for them.

Instead, they speak passionately about his charisma, familiarity and eloquence, his anti-Washington-insider persona, his pledge to diminish the influence of lobbyists, his biracial background and his goal of uniting a divided nation.

Many were hooked by Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention even before he was elected to the Senate.

"I think he's honest — that's why I'd vote for him," said Jason Frank, 36, a stay-at-home father. He said Edwards strikes him as "a pretty boy" and Clinton seems too calculated.

Greg Freedman, 43, who works in the publishing business, said he bought Obama's memoir after seeing his convention speech and decided, "Here's a real person I could probably relate to who could probably relate to me."

These supporters said they think time is still on Obama's side.

"I think he just needs to keep doing what he's doing," said Sherry Straub, 52, a public school teacher. "People just need to see him."