How do you declare victory without actually declaring victory? How do you convince a weary Democratic electorate that you've crossed a crucial threshold—locking up a majority of the pledged delegates—when your moment of triumph is tainted a bit by a 35-point loss in Kentucky? How do you turn the channel on a seemingly never-ending nomination battle and get the country to focus on the fall campaign, when your primary opponent just won't go away?
When the political game gets this complex, you hit reset.
That's what Sen. Barack Obama appeared to be doing Tuesday night, when he decided to spend the evening in Iowa—the place where he launched what he once called the Bataan Death March of the primary season and the place where he registered his first 2008 win. Iowa is also a state Obama's team believes will be competitive in the fall, so it offered a fitting backdrop from which to blast away at presumptive GOP nominee John McCain and encourage the idea that this campaign has become a two-man contest—never mind that feisty woman from New York, who keeps rolling up dramatic margins in working-class white territory.
The logic might have made sense, but the celebration in downtown Des Moines was only lukewarm. Obama gave a rousing speech—ranked by some pundits among the best of his campaign. And the assembled Iowans did their darndest to whip up a frenzy, despite the late hour on a Tuesday night. But they'd already done this, some four months earlier, and it's hard to recapture the frenzy of the Hawkeye state at caucus time. The whole exercise had the feeling of cast members suddenly being called back to a movie set months after they filmed their parts—scratching their heads a bit because they know they nailed it the first time around.
Still, Obama and his team knew that they were that much closer to victory, fueled by a solid win in Oregon. The confidence shows; references to Hillary Clinton seem to grow more magnanimous by the day. This time he praised her fighting spirit, her perseverance, even her "35 years of public service"—a phrase his aides have previously questioned, when her camp used it, because it glosses over the fact that several of those years were spent at a corporate law firm. Meanwhile his aides were busy trumpeting another good fund-raising month: in April Obama raked in $31 million to Clinton's $22 million—just another metric affirming his lead, if anyone was wondering.
Clinton and her aides talked about Florida and Michigan, and how their tallies, combined with the strong showings she says she'll post from here on in, will eventually give her an edge in the popular vote. The Obama forces countered that time heals all wounds—noting that in 1992, after Bill Clinton sewed up the Democratic nomination, some 60 percent of voters in exit polls in late-voting states said they wanted a different nominee.
But Obama is largely done talking about delegates and math, preferring to focus on McCain and the things the Republican has in common with the wildly unpopular President Bush. "This year's Republican primary was a contest to see which candidate could out-Bush the other, and that is the contest John McCain won," Obama observed. "The Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans that once bothered Senator McCain's conscience are now his only economic policy … The Bush Iraq policy that asks everything of our troops and nothing of Iraqi politicians is John McCain's policy, too, and so is the fear of tough and aggressive diplomacy that has left this country more isolated and less secure than at any time in recent history.
"I will leave it up to Senator McCain to explain to the American people whether his policies and positions represent long-held convictions or Washington calculations," Obama said. "But the one thing they don't represent is change."
Speaking to reporters on board Obama's plane, chief strategist David Axelrod suggested that McCain is the perfect candidate for the 20 percent of the country that likes the way things are going. "There's a clear choice coming in November," he said. "Senator McCain has been very clear in the last few weeks about defining that choice. He is a stalwart supporter of the Bush policies on the economy. He is a stalwart supporter of the Bush policies as it relates to foreign policy and the war in Iraq. So if you believe that we're on the right course, then he is certainly the choice. But if you believe that we need change, then we're prepared to offer that change."
They may be prepared, but the message may not really connect until the Democrats sort their unfinished business and close ranks behind a nominee. Obama moved closer to that eventuality on a strange back-to-the-future evening, but he isn't quite there yet.