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Oprah, In the Arena

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DES MOINES, Iowa — “Backstage, someone asked me if I’m nervous,” Oprah Winfrey said this afternoon, shortly after taking the stage to campaign for Barack Obama. “You damn right I’m nervous.”

But in her first speech on the trail, she delivered a speech of nearly 20 minutes laced with humor, inspirational messages and a tinge of keenly crafted and timed political rhetoric. She mentioned, at one point, one of Obama’s chief arguments against Hillary Clinton: his early opposition to the war in Iraq.

On a bitterly cold day outside, with driving treacherous because of freezing rain, some 15,000 to 18,500 people showed up at HyVee Hall in downtown Des Moines— many if not most enticed by her billing. What she gave was an impassioned case for Obama, with the underlying theme being that, in this election, change trumps experience.

“If we continue to do the same things over and over again, I believe we get the same results,” she said.

“I’m not here for partisan beliefs,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve voted for as many Republicans as I have Democrats. So this isn’t about partisanship for me.”

Obama himself was aware that this crowd — bigger than the 9,000 people who showed up for all of the candidates at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in November — was enticed by Oprah’s presence.

“There are some people here to see Oprah, and I know that I am the biproduct of that,” he said.

When one member of the crowd shouted “Oprah for Vice President,” Obama relied, “You want Oprah for vice president? That would be a demotion, you understand that.”

Winfrey interspersed folksy humor into her speech — trying to talk politics while at the same time gossiping with friends about “Dancing with the Stars”—that perhaps helped make her speech a bit more intimate, given the size of the audience. If anything, Iowans are used to meeting candidates, and their supporters, one on one.

She noted, a bit wryly, the intense build-up to the event, particularly in the political media, with the lingering question being whether her gift for turning books and causes into national sensations can translate on the political stage.

“You know, so much has been said about what my jumping into this arena does or not bring to the table of politics,” she said. “I really don’t know. I am going to leave that up to the pundits who will say, (she switched to a mocking tone) ‘Will it be the same influence as the the book club? Will it be like he favorite things show?’ I don’t know about all of that. …I understand the difference between that and this critical moment in our nation’s history.”

Perhaps mindful of the risks that she has of going overboard on her star power, she said to the crowd, “I am not here to tell you what to think. I am asking you to think.”

As she did at her fund-raiser in September, she several times mentioned that this was the first time she’s ever done anything like this. So it was a little surprising in both the length of the speech and in that she ran down a laundry list of Obama’s accomplishments, a prerequisite for any endorsement talk.

“Long before it was the popular thing to do,” she said, “he stood with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq.”

Her line drew some of the loudest cheers of the event.

Obama delivered a variation of his stump speech, but steered clear of some of the harsher rhetoric he has used to compare himself to Clinton.

Clinton was not mentioned by name once, although Winfrey did allude to the cycle of Bush-Clinton in the White House.

And she also framed his chief drawback — his short tenure in the Senate — in the tone of a self-help book. “Experience in the hallways of government isn’t as important as experience in the pathway of life.”

“When you listen to Barack Obama, when you hear him, you witness a very rare thing,” she said. “You witness an ear for eloquence and a tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth.”

In Cedar Rapids on Saturday, as the icy rain kept many reporters from trailing them from Des Moines, the Oprah-Obama duo drew about 10,000 people. Repeating a line from her September fund-raiser, Winfrey said, “I’ve never taken this kind
of risk before, or felt compelled to stand up and speak out, because there wasn’t anybody for
me to stand out and speak out for.” 

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, brought out daughter Chelsea Clinton and Clinton’s mother, Dorothy, at least guaranteeing that all of the publicity won’t head Obama’s way today. They appeared at three separate events in the state.

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