On a sunlit Friday afternoon in July, Barack Obama stopped by Beverly Van Fossen's farm in Adel, Iowa, to speak about "rural issues." It was standard Hawkeye State stumping—until the senator took a stab at sympathizing with farmers whose crop prices have stagnated. "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" he asked. Unfortunately, Adel isn't exactly arugula country. "Someone near me whispered, 'What's arugula?' " says Van Fossen, 74. " 'You can't find that in Iowa'." Same goes for Whole Foods. The closest locations, reported The New York Times that evening, are in Omaha, Neb.; Kansas City, Kans., and Minneapolis. Whoops. Right-wing bloggers pounced. The dishy Wonkette called Obama a "super rich Ivy League elitist." Peter Feld, a former Michael Dukakis staffer, wrote on Powers-Point.com that a similar slip by his ex-boss—the suggestion that Iowans grow "Belgian endive"—surfaced repeatedly in 1988 attack ads. C'est la vie politique.
Obama's "arugula moment" was silly, but the underlying concern about his candidacy is not. For the past 40 years, Democratic nominating contests have pitted "wine track" candidates (backed by young, well-off, college-educated elites) against "beer track" opponents (who cultivate a less-educated coalition of minorities and blue-collar workers). The 2008 contest is no exception. According to the latest Cook Political Report survey, Hillary Clinton polls 12 points higher among voters who haven't graduated from college than those who have; Obama's numbers are reversed. His problem: only 34 percent of likely Democratic primary voters have college degrees. "If you don't develop a solid base among downscale Dems, it's very hard to get the nomination," says demographer Ruy Teixeira. Unless Obama gets off the wine track, he could end up the latest in a long line of brainy, reformist also-rans like Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley.
Which is exactly what Clinton wants. As the first serious female contender for president, she is hardly the natural choice for socially conservative, blue-collar Democrats. But because "they're less critical and less informed than upscale voters, they're more inclined to go with the mainstream candidate, at least early on," says Teixeira. Clinton is working hard to solidify her head start among the beer-track types who powered her husband's "Comeback Kid" performance in the 1992 New Hampshire primary (and eventually won him the White House). Consider her oft-repeated line about being "born into a middle class family in the middle of America in the middle of the last century." "It's a class appeal," says Penn's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of "Packaging the Presidency." "It's a move away from First Lady, from Ivy League graduate." Obama, in contrast, "can be poetic, even cerebral," says Jamieson—and the Clinton camp is quick to agree. In a 10-minute interview with NEWSWEEK, Clinton strategist Mark Penn mentioned arugula three times. "It symbolizes his appeal to elites," says Penn, who also noted that Obama's first Iowa ad featured Harvard Law professor Larry Tribe.
Obama's team is undeterred. By most accounts, its candidate is better positioned than his predecessors to overcome the wine-track curse. "He started his career on the South Side of Chicago," says spokeswoman Candice Tolliver. "No one needs to prime him." His ace in the hole? Race. Even though polls show that blacks still have doubts about Obama, he weathered similar skepticism in the 2004 Illinois Senate primary before winning nearly all of their votes. "He soared with elites initially," says Mark Blumenthal, who polled for Obama's chief rival. "But it took until the last week of the campaign for blacks to decide." If they break his way again, says Blumenthal, Obama could ride a new black-upscale majority to the nomination. For early indicators, staffers are watching low-income, largely black South Carolina where, from April 1 to June 30, the campaign spent $480,000—four times Clinton's investment—to hire staff, stage rallies, organize house meetings and place ads on gospel and R&B radio. The result: an electorate that's more familiar with Obama—and polls that show a dead heat. "We have to do more to reach low-income voters," says South Carolina spokesman Kevin Griffis. But strong numbers heading into the Jan. 29 primary would bode well for Obama's beer-track appeal—if he can steer clear of the fancy lettuce.