Irony followed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to a show barn at the Johnson County fairgrounds on Saturday night.
She made a big splash at the local Democratic Party’s fall barbecue when she led 85-year-old George McGovern to the stage to give her a rousing endorsement there among the hay bales.
“I hope I live long enough to see a black president in the White House,” McGovern told the crowd, alluding to Clinton’s leading rival, Sen. Barack Obama. But McGovern quickly added: “We have an old rule of courtesy in the United States: Ladies first!” McGovern’s crackling voice brought the house down, because he’s a progressive movement icon, fondly remembered in this crowd for his anti-Vietnam War stands and for taking on one of the most reviled Republicans, former President Richard Nixon, in the 1972 presidential contest.
But some also remember that in that election McGovern suffered one of the most lopsided defeats in U.S. history, leaving Nixon in the White House and Democrats demoralized.
His appearance with Clinton was ironic, because it came shortly after four of her Democratic competitors had taken to the same stage, some offering veiled warnings about the single biggest question that keeps hanging over her front-running candidacy.
Can Clinton win? “Like many of you, I don’t happen to believe that just any person we nominate in 2008 is automatically going to be elected by the people of this country,” long-shot Sen. Chris Dodd told the attentive Democratic die-hards. “Even though people want change, we Democrats have to have a candidate that’s electable.”
It’s a theme heard time and time again from Clinton rivals like former Sen. John Edwards, not to mention from rank-and-file Democrats with painful memories of the party’s last two demoralizing defeats in the 2000 and 2004 contests.
The average folks are a bit more blunt.
“I’d like to see her make it,” said Genie McCliment, 72, of Iowa City. “But I think in this country, I think a woman is unelectable yet.”
Some woman, maybe, other voters figure. But many Democrats wonder if Clinton, who became a polarizing figure during eight years as former President Bill Clinton’s first lady, might be the one factor who could mobilize an otherwise fairly disenchanted Republican Party base.
So McCliment is trying to decide between Obama and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a man who, she said, “always seems to have the answers I agree with.”
Others are considering the populist change message of Edwards, the experience message of Dodd, the “two-for-one,” experience-plus-change, message of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, or the uncompromising anti-war message of Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
But still, the men have a problem. And it’s the same problem that all the Republican Party’s presidential contenders face.
No one of them has locked up the vote to become the clear “anti-Hillary” contender in their party’s primary contest.
So Clinton now holds a daunting, 21 percentage point lead in the latest Associated Press national poll of Democrats. She slipped past the longtime Iowa leader, Edwards, by six points in a Des Moines Register poll released on Sunday.
Pundits are using terms like “juggernaut” and “runaway train” to refer to Clinton. And the men are melting into one big muddle.
It’s no wonder that folks at the Johnson County Fairgrounds on Saturday night kept joking that the Democratic contest had become “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Trying to break through, the men often contrast themselves with Clinton. But they don’t always draw distinctions among one another.
This happened earlier in the day on Saturday, when Edwards appeared inside a school gym in Waterloo. With his wife, Elizabeth, looking on, he told an attentive crowd how he disagrees with Clinton on future use of combat troops in Iraq, about her diplomatic posture toward Iran, about her newly-released health care plan and other issues.
But he never tried to contrast himself with Obama or any of the other would-be alternatives to Clinton. And his audiences appear to include more people who’ve already decided they want someone other than the former first lady.
“She will divide this country,” said Linda Powers of Waterloo, who said she’s still making up her mind between Edwards and Obama.
At an impromptu press conference after the meeting, Edwards said he focuses on Clinton because, “Honestly, the big distinctions that I see…are between myself and Sen. Clinton.”
If the distinctions with candidates like Obama are less than clear, “That’s my responsibility,” he said, figuring those will become clear before the election is decided.
“He wants to make it Clinton (versus) Edwards,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political science professor and Johnson County Democratic Party organizer. “He doesn’t want to give Obama anything else at this point.”
But Obama, who skipped Saturday night’s joint candidate event in Iowa City, has been stalled behind Clinton in the polls, while Edwards’ numbers have started falling. Although Richardson and Biden have gained some ground, they’re still far from those “Big Three.”
Former Rep. Dave Nagle, one of the most avid defenders of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus system, said it’s still too early to call Clinton a shoo-in. Like others, he remembers former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s famous collapse from the top of the polls in the 2004 contest.
“It’s still a dogfight here,” Nagle said of the fight to woo those undecided voters who make late picks. “What you see is, people are milling around.”
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com. Read his Back roads to the White House” blog at: http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com/denver/sprengelmeyer/)