Wolffe: Terry McAuliffe's Mission

The scene did not exactly reek of triumph. Just two dozen supporters had gathered at the union hall perched between a welding company and a gas station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The room was two-thirds empty, the sign-up sheets on the walls blank. But that did not deter Terry McAuliffe, the hyperkinetic chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, as he tucked into his speech at the seventh event of his long day. "The campaign is on fire. We're doing great," McAuliffe told the room.

McAuliffe can be forgiven his congenital enthusiasm. He had just helped Clinton post impressive third-quarter fund-raising numbers—outpacing her nearest rival, Sen. Barack Obama, in total dollar amount as well as the tally of new donors added to the rolls. A campaign that had already been taking on the aura of inevitability suddenly surged forward anew—as reflected in a fresh round of polls showing an ever-growing gap between Clinton and the competition.

But McAuliffe wasn't resting on his laurels. "What happens in your state here is going to be a huge determinant of who the Democratic nominee for president is," he said. "Don't believe the polls. Four of the last six polls have put Hillary in the lead here. But we're not in first place. We're bunched up in a three-way tie … We've got to run like we're 20 points behind."

McAuliffe's pitch is a sign of both the strength and the weakness of the Clinton campaign in Iowa.

Taking nothing for granted, the Clinton juggernaut dispatches a key lieutenant to canvas Iowa in a blue Chevy Cobalt, meeting small clumps of supporters other campaigns might view as hardly worth a major fund-raiser's time. (McAuliffe says he extends his audience by making hundreds of calls to voters during his travel time.)

But despite the Clinton camp's manifest advantages, they need McAuliffe on that road. The New York senator's position in Iowa is much weaker than any other early voting state. While she may have opened up a daunting lead in national polls—33 points, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll—she's neck-and-neck with Obama and former senator John Edwards in the Hawkeye State. A defeat in the first-in-the-nation caucus could imperil her lead in other early states, if the pattern of previous elections is repeated. And an early loss would raise serious questions about her campaign's biggest selling point: that she is strongest, most electable candidate in the field.

Even Clinton's supporters in Iowa are nervous. Wally Horn, an Iowa state senator from Cedar Rapids, introduced McAuliffe at the union hall Wednesday evening. Horn, who has spent 35 years in the legislature, signed up with the campaign after persistent pressure from the candidate's husband during the Clintons' first campaign swing together in early July.

"He asked me three times in 15 minutes," Horn said, recalling that Clinton had visited him as a sitting president in 1994. Clinton's finger-wagging message for Horn was simple: "I want you to be for Hillary." But Horn sounds more supportive of Bill than of Hillary. "You know when he walks in the room; you don't need to look around, you just know he's there," he said. "What's so sad, for me anyway, is he tries to hide it now because of Hillary. He can explode a room, but he has to keep low and small."

Horn says he's convinced that Hillary is ready to be president. He just isn't sure that Iowans can be trusted to vote for her, even when they say they like her. "I was a [Dick] Gephardt supporter before, but people didn't show up at the precinct caucus," he said, referring to the former House Democratic leader from Missouri in the 2004 caucuses. "In Iowa, people are so nice they'll tell you they support you, but then they don't show up.

"This is what concerns me about Hillary. You almost know it's a natural for people to get out for Obama to the precinct caucus. But Hillary is going to have to get her people there, and it's not a natural."

Horn's views are supported by the recent NEWSWEEK Poll, which showed a big gap between support among registered Democrats and likely caucus-goers. Among all Democrats in Iowa, Clinton enjoys a 6-point lead over Obama. But among people likely to vote, Obama is leading by 4 points. That 10-point spread suggests that Obama holds an early advantage in organization and enthusiasm.

Over the next three months, much can change in Iowa; many caucus-goers typically make up their minds in the last month of campaigning. At this stage of the campaign four years ago, John Kerry was universally written off as dead in spite of his early front-runner status and his strong performance in the TV debates.

Clinton might yet pull away decisively from her rivals in Iowa. Or she may suffer a Dean-like crash. But for the Clinton campaign, the lack of obvious enthusiasm for the candidate is troubling. At the union hall in Cedar Rapids, only two members of the audience expressed a strong bond with the senator. One was an Arkansas transplant; the other had recently hosted a house party for the candidate.

But if that bothered McAuliffe, he didn't show it as he primed the small crowd for a campaign swing by Clinton herself early next week. In his mind, Hillary is the only candidate who can defeat Republican Rudy Giuliani in states like California and New York. And only Clinton could lead the Democrats to a historic victory.

One supporter piped up asking for advice on how to answer a nagging question: why perpetuate the Clinton-Bush dynastic hold on the White House?

"I understand since 1980 there has been a Bush or Clinton on the ticket," said McAuliffe, "and I understand that people raise that issue. People like something new. But with the unique circumstances we have in the world, experience has to trump everything else.

"You'll always have candidates that come up as an alternative to what people view as the inside. But what is very unique now is it's obviously war in Iraq. It's Iran, it's Afghanistan. You have Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar; all these countries have issues today. It's about to explode in the Middle East! I just pray we can keep everything together until we can get a new president in office. I like new things, too. But when you're in a difficult situation, I've got to go with someone who can do the job tomorrow. There's no on-the-job training for Hillary."

If that apocalyptic argument didn't drive Iowans to caucus, McAuliffe had one last plea.

"In three months, we can change the course of the world," he said. "I'm asking you, can you give us an hour a day, two hours a day? In three months, this thing could be over, and if we don't do it, we're not going to win. We have got to fire people up."

The audience shuffled out, and McAuliffe jumped in his car to the next event. The sign-up sheets on the wall were still blank.