Barack Obama's Iowa headquarters near the State Capitol in downtown Des Moines has the unmistakable décor of an insurgent operation: thinning, mildewed carpet; litter from sign-painting parties; recycling boxes full of canvassing tally sheets and empty Miller Lite cartons. But the deepening clutter hasn't covered up all the traces of what the building used to be: a hockey rink, which could hardly be a more fitting metaphor for a political contest that is suddenly getting a lot rougher. The old Dr Pepper scoreboard is still on the wall, but the largely twentysomething crew at Obama Central has another way of measuring the team's progress. Staffers ring a silver bellhop bell whenever an organizer signs up a new precinct captain who has agreed to stand up and argue the candidate's case before friends and neighbors at one of the 1,784 caucuses that will be held across Iowa on Jan. 3. Since Obama's speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson dinner his most acclaimed performance since the 2004 National Convention address that made him a celebrity the bell has dinged more than 233 times.
As the contest for the Democratic nomination moves into the last weeks of exhibition season, it appears that Obama is turning this into a race. "This summer he seemed to still be finding himself," says John Norris, an Obama adviser who ran John Kerry's Iowa operation in 2004. "But he turned the corner and realized, 'This is going to work out if I make it work out.'"
For months which can be several life-cycles on the campaign trail it looked as if that turning point might not happen. Despite the record amounts of money he had raised, the organization he had built and the crowds he had drawn, the freshman Senator from Illinois with a message of conciliation and righteousness had seemed for most of the year to be unable unwilling, actually to put much of a dent in Hillary Clinton's trajectory of preordination and inevitability. He appeared destined for the same fate that had met a long line of Democratic insurgents Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean among them whose promises of a new kind of politics had briefly enjoyed a vogue, only to be crushed into dust by a front-runner who was using the standard playbook.
Some of the candidate's supporters and advisers found his genteel approach to campaigning admirable and maddening. "There was a panic, particularly in the campaign fund-raising machinery, this summer," recalls Bill Daley, a top Obama adviser and presidential-campaign veteran who tried to tamp down the worriers. "They said, 'He's gotta punch harder; he's gotta engage.'"
The campaign had not lived up to the promise of Obama's February announcement on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., a black man standing in front of the building where Lincoln had delivered his famous "House Divided" speech against slavery in 1858 and decrying "the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics." Crowds turned out by the thousands to hear him almost everywhere he went, but they often left feeling oddly underwhelmed.
Like a concert audience that wants to hear only the greatest hits, they didn't know what to make of Obama's unfamiliar material as he honed his message and started spelling out his policies. The candidate was confused as well. "The expectations," he tells TIME, "are elevated to this odd level. Even when we do the spectacular, people discount it. If we have a crowd of 23,000 people in a red state in the spring, people sort of say, 'Ho hum.' We've raised more money from small donors than all the other Democratic candidates combined, and from a standing start, we are competing with the dominant political organization in American politics that was built over the course of two decades by a two-term ex-President. That's pretty good."
But it wasn't good enough. Nowhere had Obama, with his almost cantankerous disdain for sound bites, been so frustrated as in the unending series of candidate debates that have punctuated the campaign season. In the first outing, he stumbled over a question about how he would react to a terrorist attack, sounding more like a candidate to head the volunteer fire department as he focused on disaster preparedness. Clinton, seeing her opening, spoke as a Commander in Chief: "I think a President must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate."
On the rare occasions when Obama's campaign decided to engage the Clinton campaign, such as when it was caught leaking opposition research done against Hillary to the media, it was deftly outmaneuvered. Her spokespeople were quick to characterize any engagement as a violation of Obama's pledge to practice a new kind of politics. In a series of meetings in Des Moines over the course of two days in early October, Obama's dismayed fund-raisers made another run at him and his strategists, begging Obama to come down off his mountaintop and take her on. That's the old kind of politics, he told them. "That's not who I am."