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Trekking to see Oprah -- oh, and Obama

At Iowa rallies, the TV host's appearance rouses thousands. She also takes some subtle digs at Clinton.

December 09, 2007|Louise Roug and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — There she was, finally. The doyenne of daytime TV. American Dream incarnate.

After weeks of anticipation, Iowans had braved icy roads and bitter cold to take part in a vast Oprah pilgrimage, seeing her -- and Barack Obama -- at two rallies in Iowa that drew some 33,000 people.

She had them before "hello."

"Oprah Winfrey is . . . " Michelle Obama said in her introduction in Des Moines, before someone from the audience interrupted with a yell: "Awesome!"

A little after 3:30 p.m., Winfrey took the stage, wearing -- what else? -- purple.

"At last I'm here," she said, to a deafening roar from the crowd.

"I came here because I deeply believe in America," she said in a rousing speech that sometimes had a preacher's diction. "Let's dream America anew again by supporting Barack Obama."

For weeks, commentators and media pundits have debated what her endorsement might mean for the Democratic Illinois senator. Would Winfrey be able to move votes as effortlessly as she moves cultural products? Would there be a couch on stage and prizes for the audience?

Winfrey acknowledged as much. "I understand the difference between a book club and a free refrigerator" -- adding, "That was a nice refrigerator" about one of her recent studio-audience giveaways -- "I understand the difference between that and this critical moment in our nation's history."

The 50-minute rally in Des Moines was a potent hybrid of pop and politics; of hope and self-help admonition ("I am not here to tell you what to think," she said."I am here to ask you to think.") peppered with subtle digs at Obama's main opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

"Experience in the hallways of government isn't as important to me as experience on the pathway of life," she said.

"There are those who say 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. And Iowa, I believe that moment is now."

When she invoked Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, she received the wildest applause of the afternoon. "He stood with clarity and conviction against this war in Iraq," she said.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the campaign distributed 23,000 tickets for the event in Des Moines and 10,000 for the Cedar Rapids rally -- almost four times as many as the number of people who attended last month's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner which traditionally has been the biggest event on the Democratic calendar in Iowa.

In Iowa, where some 122,000 Democrats came out to caucus in the last presidential election, the size of the event was significant, especially because the Obama campaign traded tickets for volunteer hours -- 5,540 hours from supporters in return for seats closest to the stage. Precinct captains got the best seats in the house.

In this early-voting state, an added bonus for Obama is that the typical Winfrey watcher -- older, white women, according to Nielsen ratings -- are also those most likely to show up for the first presidential caucuses Jan. 3.

"This is going to pull him ahead," said Emily Trunnel, 33, who had come to see them both. "It's going to bring in all the Oprah fans for him as well."

Outside the Des Moines event, T-shirt sellers and button hawkers did brisk business. Inside the hall, warming up the crowd who'd come in from the cold, a band played Earth, Wind and Fire and other disco favorites, making the gathering inside the Hy-Vee Hall seem like a giant high-school dance party.

It was a raucous crowd, often yelling out comments and encouragement to the speakers, but it grew restless as Obama began delivering his stump speech.

"Running a conventional textbook Washington campaign just won't do," he said, with another dig at Clinton. "We can't live in fear of losing."

At the back of the hall, the crowd began to trickle out through the doors.

Maureen Adams, 52, and her daughter Erica, 20, were among the early departures. Winfrey had been the main draw, and Maureen Adams got tired of standing in the stuffy hall. "I can watch what they say on TV," she said, adding that Winfrey's backing of Obama would not decide her vote. "I listened to her opinion, and that's all it is."

Her daughter, a supporter of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, agreed.

"Just because Oprah is campaigning is not going to persuade my vote, same as Barbra Streisand campaigning for Hillary," she said. "You can't do things because a celebrity says to."

But Obama won a convert in Christie Flickinger, 40, a landscape designer from Des Moines, who entered the hall undecided but left convinced she would caucus for Obama.

"He doesn't have an answer for everything, but he wants to work on it," Flickinger said. "He's not making promises like the others."

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