On The Obama Roadshow: Keokuk and Mt. Pleasant

KEOKUK, IOWA – Underneath this small prairie town on the southeastern bend of the Mississippi River lies a complex web of abandoned sewer pipes, a testament to a long ago time when Keokuk was slated to be a gateway to the Midwest.

It’s now the sort of place that journalists like to describe as economically “depressed,” although there were few signs of malaise around the elementary school where Barack Obama began his Iowa tour.

For Democratic presidential candidates, it’s a place to test their messages on trade, globalization and dislocation and to hear, in turn, how well their solutions track with voters who are skeptical of candidates bearing messages.

Obama, from neighboring Illinois, is a “hopemonger.” In his stump speeches, the senator accuses the press – “the pundits”-- of suggesting he sells abstract hope and nothing substantive. Well, a stump speech isn’t meant to be substantive. But generally, Democratic stump speeches are not aspirational; Obama’s is. Democratic presidential stump speeches are often litanies of complaints; Obama’s is more of a grabbag of complaints and ideals.
Obama does spend quite a bit of time talking about his hope, its context, and why he wants his audience to share his optimism. In Keokuk, his actual pitch to these voters – “I’d love for you to caucus for me” -- was literally an afterthought to his remarks.

About 400 Keokukians greeted Obama, and he rewarded their patience with a full 30 minutes of grip-and-grin, signing autographs, kissing babies (three) and posing for pictures. Obama works the crowd in two stages. First, he traces the perimeter of the rope line and shakes hands. Then he returns to his point of origin and traces it again, this time chatting a bit more casually and lingering. The reason for this is that so many Democrats want to shake Obama’s hand that his advance staff calculated that it’s more efficient and time-saving for Obama to first touch everyone and then go back and spend time with those who want to spend time with him.

MT. PLEASANT – In this small city on the southeastern tip of the state, Obama stopped by a fern-enclosed two-story house on North White Street. The crowd was smaller – about 250 people – perhaps one of the smallest Iowa gatherings Obama has ever addressed in public.

They clapped and whistled on a wide lawn enclosed by a forest, a lake and busy train tracks. Obama made one concession to the simmering heat of the day: he was wearing a new, sweat-free shirt. You can’t leave Mt. Pleasant without mentioning its former mayor, Tom Vilsack, or that its current mayor, a Republican, supports John Edwards.

Shortly, the motorcade will take us north to Fairfield, home of the Maharishi University of Management, residence of former president candidate John Hagelin and a true Dennis Kucinich stronghold. Mt. Pleasant is Catholic, Christian, traditional. Fairfield is.. not. And who says Iowa isn’t diverse?