DES MOINES, IA --"They're all a bunch of goops," said the check-out lady at QuikTrip [sic], the Interstate 80 truck stop that doubles as a passing-good deli. Meaning politicians. And someone suggested to her that this was exactly why Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee had just won their party's caucuses in Iowa so handily.
Neither is the same old goop. A mixed-marriage son of Kenya and Kansas on the one hand. A Baptist preacher with a yen for populist economics on the other. Each articulate to a preternatural degree. Each appealing, both overtly and by their very beings, to the political crossover vote. Each defeating his main opponent by the margin of 9 percent.
Each an example of the improbable proving inevitable, in victor Obama's phrase.
"We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come," the Democratic victor said, in a speech that touched so many bases and was said so well that it put to shame his 2004 convention speech - the one that put the then new senator from Illinois on the map.
Yes, Obama won the "youth" vote -- .57 percent of the under-30's - and Huckabee got the evangelicals - 45 percent of a base that, in Iowa, amounted to 60 percent of caucus-goers overall. But both are - how to say it? - bigger than that. And each made a point of talking up inclusiveness as the foundation of their Iowa victories and of the election to come and the political era that comes after it.
To be sure, Hillary Clinton has too deep a war chest and too deep a bench, organizationally, to bow out. One remembers longtime Clinton retainer James Carville's cry when the Monica Lewinsky scandal threatened to overwhelm Bill Clinton's presidency: "This is wah!" he shouted out in full South Loos-iana Cajunese. Whereupon he - and the Clintons - fetched up the ordnance to win that war.
Hillary will try again. But, beyond the fact that she's up against a man who could be a generational phenomenon, she has also to contend with the second-place finisher in the Democratic race, former senator John Edwards, who has so unabashedly talked about "corporate greed" and promised what Republicans like to call "class war."
"On to New Hampshire," vowed Edwards to a turnaway crowd at the Renaissance-Savery Hotel in downtown Des Moines. And what that meant was spelled out afterward by the candidate's chief economic-policy advisor, Leo Hindery: "We beat the Clinton machine. And we'll beat it again," he said. No mention of Obama.
And Huckabee had left no doubt in the last few days of campaigning, nor in his speech to his throng Thursday night, that his pending triumph over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was a victory of ordinary folks over the elite, of truth over dissembling, and of will over money. He never tired of pointing out that Romney out-spent him "20-to-one," and it was obviously his former fellow governor - and onetime moderate turned conservative exemplar -- that he meant when he used words like "phony" and "pretender" on the stump.
Speaking of exemplars, the apparent third-place finisher among Republicans, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, materialized as something of a conservative firebrand Thursday morning in a barn-burning speech to a packed room at a West Des Moines hotel. For a change this campaign year, he was focused, intense, and capable of a sense of humor (he was seen so frequently in the movies, he said, because "they need[ed] somebody who was big and worked cheap").
Both Thompson and his longtime friend John McCain, the given-up-for-dead onetime frontrunner who has surged again, finished in a virtual dead heat for third place in Iowa, and each has thereby won a ticket to New Hampshire. McCain, a possible winner there, has gotten most of the attention, but Thompson is a legitimate substitute either for Huckabee, should he falter, or for McCain, if the Republican establishment proves unreceptive to the maverick hero again, as it did in 2000.
"You have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what New Hampshire can do in five days," said Obama Thursday night, looking ahead. As for Huckabee, he'll hope to score well in New Hampshire, but it's more likely that he'll be looking at South Carolina later in January, to finish off Romney - and whomever else is still out there, including McCain, with whom he, too, like Thompson, still has a mutual-admiration-society relationship.
One way in which pundits are still underestimating Huckabee is in concentrating so totally on his evangelical persuasion and skimming over, or ignoring altogether, his populism. "Republicans have economic concerns," Huckabee stressed Thursday night, and he didn't mean the high-bracket tax-cut crowd. He talked instead about working families struggling to pay for gasoline at the pump.
As Obama said, "People are looking for someone who is willing to say the unorthodox - and [for] authenticity." Or, as a still-game Edwards put it, "One thing is clear from the results tonight. The status quo lost and change won."
Indeed so. And there is more to come.
(Flyer political editor Jackson Baker will be reporting regularly from Iowa and New Hampshire for the next few days.)