DES MOINES — By the time Oprah Winfrey walked on the HyVee Center stage for Barack Obama, surveys had tested this moment. Pundits had gone back and forth on whether her pull extended to the polling booth. Even Iowans seemed to have taken to the role of strategist: She won’t influence my vote, but she may sway others.
So right at the start of a nearly 20-minute speech, a mixture of folksy wit and daytime-TV wisdom, Winfrey addressed all the hype. “You know, so much has been said about what my jumping into this arena does or does not bring to the table of politics, I really don’t know,” she said.
What else was she to say in this endorsement to end all endorsements?
There’s little doubt what she did do: On a bitterly cold Saturday in December, Winfrey helped sustain momentum for Obama’s campaign in this state. Matching her regular daytime audience in the state, an estimated 18,500 flooded into the convention hall, and many of them admitted, a bit sheepishly, that she was the reason they came.
Why not? Given the sheer level of campaigning going on in the lead-up to the Jan. 3 caucus, Iowans have the luxury of meeting, one on one, any number of candidates any day of the week.
But even if politicos have become a bit ho-hum, it didn’t matter that very few Iowans would get to meet Winfrey up close and personal, either in Des Moines or at her appearance later in the day before a crowd of about 10,000 in Cedar Rapids. Iowans are notorious for deciding at the last minute to skip caucuses because of poor weather, yet thousands scraped their cars of freezing rain to be there.
That’s because many if not most in the crowd accepted the auspicious nature of the event: It was the first appearance on the campaign trail for the talkshow dynamo, a phenomenon in and of herself who has turned books, self-help gurus and causes into gold.
“She’s a very influential woman,” said Rose Braxton, outreach director for the Girl Scouts, who had been leaning toward Hillary Clinton but was now leaning toward Obama. “For her to choose to be on his team means that he has a little bit of pull.”
So crowded was the auditorium that it seemed as if the whole city had shown up — even Miss Iowa, Diana Reed, who walked the room wearing her crown but declaring that she was undecided.
Gina Steffen, a retiree from West Des Moines, said she was moved by both Winfrey and Obama — although she, too, still is undecided. “She said she has never done something like this before, but she has stepped forward, taken a risk, because she believes in him,” Steffen said.
Obama himself acknowledged that this “Oprah-palooza” was about her more than him. “There are people to see Oprah, and I know I am a byproduct of that,” he said.
As he gave a 30-minute variation on his stump speech, someone shouted from the crowd, “Oprah for vice president!”
“Oprah for vice president?” Obama said. “That would be a demotion. You understand that.”
Obama has been moving up in the polls here, and one Des Moines Register survey showed him leading among women in the state. “It’s time for a change,” said Mary Beljaars, an insurance company executive from West Des Moines, as she tried to find the right ticket line. She, too, admitted she was there for Oprah.
Much of Winfrey’s pitch was aimed directly at what’s perceived to be her candidate’s greatest weakness: the notion that he is a political neophyte.
“Experience in the hallways of government isn’t as important as experience in the pathway of life,” Winfrey said, wearing a purplish velvet pantsuit.
And she took on reverential tones to drive the point home.
“There are those who say that Barack Obama should wait his turn,” she said. “But none of us is God. We don’t know what the future holds, so we must respond to the pressures and the fortunes of history when the moment strikes.”
In contrast to her fund-raising event in September at her Montecito estate, where she tightly controlled the show, this event was full of potential peril. Other campaigns had already disseminated information questioning her impact. A John Edwards supporter attacked her commitment to a school in South Africa and asked why she hadn’t done the same for South Carolina. The Clinton campaign, perhaps in a last-minute attempt to grab at least some publicity on this day, dispatched daughter Chelsea and Clinton’s mother Dorothy out on the trail in Iowa. Bill Clinton campaigned in South Carolina on Saturday and was due in Des Moines today.
“Change is just a word if you don’t have the experience to back it up,” Clinton said at several stops.
Winfrey admitted that she was “out of my pew, out of my terrain.”
“Backstage, someone asked me if I am nervous,” she said. “You’re damn right I’m nervous.”
So it was a little surprising that she spoke longer than most people delivering endorsement speeches, and that she even ventured into the political terrain that has created a caustic atmosphere between Obama and Clinton. Running down a long list of his accomplishments, from early childhood education to support for action in Darfur, she ended with this declaration: “Long before it was the popular thing to do, he stood with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq.”
It drew the crowd’s loudest applause, as it echoed a familiar Obama argument that indirectly points the finger at Clinton, who in 2002 voted to give President Bush the authority to launch the invasion.
And although she never mentioned Clinton by name, her references were easy to read. “If we continue to the same things over and over and over again, I know you get the same results,” she said.
Winfrey mixed in light irreverence with her trademark knack for coming up with just the right words of inspiration. She joked of gossiping with friends about “Dancing With the Stars.” But she also adopted the stern tone of an orator, as when she said, “I am not hear telling you what to think. I am asking you to think.”
“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.”
Winfrey took her celebrity to New Hampshire and South Carolina on Sunday, further testing the limits of politics and entertainment. The Oprah-Obama appearances drew 8,500 in Manchester and nearly 30,000 in Columbia, in some of the biggest crowds yet of this campaign season.
In the end, we may never know for sure if it helps put Obama over the top, or if her celebrity ends up obscuring his. That’s because, when it comes to a celebrity’s influence, voters are probably too proud and too smart to admit it.