‘Best campaign I've covered'

I remember the precise moment when I became convinced that this presidential campaign was going to be the best I'd ever covered. It was Saturday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2007. I stood in the lobby of Hy-Vee Hall, the big convention center in Des Moines, watching an endless stream of men, women and children come down the escalators from the network of skywalks that link the downtown business blocks of Iowa's capital.

They were bundled in winter coats against the chilly temperatures, and the mood was festive – like a football game tailgate party. But the lure here was not a sporting contest; it was a political rally.

Sen. Barack Obama had imported Oprah Winfrey from Chicago to make the first of her endorsement appearances.

A marvel from the start

It was startling that almost a year before Election Day, 18,000 people had given up their Saturday to stand and listen to an hour of political rhetoric I'd not seen voters so turned on since my first campaign as a political reporter, the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960.

That year, the old Washington Star sent me to Beckley, W.Va., to get a ground-level view of the Democratic primary between Sens. John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Raleigh County and all of West Virginia were made-to-order for Humphrey, who had the backing of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic state leadership, which was wary of endorsing the Roman Catholic Kennedy.

What I found during my week in Beckley, however, was an energized group of young Kennedy enthusiasts. When I walked the country roads and knocked on the doors of the wood-frame cabins, I met a surprising number of voters who were ready to give the youthful senator from Massachusetts a chance. Despite the odds, I reported, Kennedy could win Raleigh County – as he did.

The day after the Oprah-Obama rally, I went to Obama's Des Moines headquarters and found Mitch Stewart, his caucus director, happily pawing through a mountain of blue, white and green cards – each bearing a name, phone number and e-mail address filled out by the people who had packed Hy-Vee Hall. A team of volunteers was beginning to sort the cards by location, distributing them among the 38 offices Stewart had already opened across Iowa. “Phoning will begin tonight,” he said.

Nothing comparable was happening at the headquarters of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, the caucus favorites, so I reported that Obama might win.

He was not the only long shot who was beginning to move.

Right after Thanksgiving 2007, I had made my first trip to New Hampshire for this election. I watched a GOP debate at Dartmouth College. The next day, I visited Mike Dennehy, who had become Sen. John McCain's favorite operative in the Granite State during the 2000 primary, in which McCain had upset George W. Bush.

Dennehy had stayed loyal to McCain, though most of the other campaign veterans had been thrown overboard in the summer of 2007 after a spending spree left McCain penniless and seemingly without hope. Dennehy told me that something was happening in New Hampshire: The crowds at McCain's town meetings, which had earlier been 10 or 20, had begun to grow to 50 or 100. “It's beginning to feel like 2000 again,” he said.

Despite the political and journalistic consensus that McCain was finished, he refused to quit and almost single-handedly resurrected his candidacy. On Dec. 2, I wrote that “if the Republican Party really wanted to hold on to the White House in 2009, it's pretty clear what it would do. It would swallow its doubts and nominate a ticket of John McCain for president and Mike Huckabee for vice president.” (Huckabee was on his way to winning Iowa on the GOP side.)

In January of this year, you could have gotten great odds against Obama and McCain being the finalists in this election. Obama was challenging the obvious front-runner, Clinton, a former first lady and seasoned senator who had more money and better connections than anyone and offered the history-making prospect of becoming the first female president.

As for McCain, his barriers seemed insurmountable. His angry tirade against the right-wing preachers who had backed Bush in 2000 had alienated him from that wing of the party. He had become the chief cheerleader for an unpopular war in Iraq. There were younger, more attractive alternatives: Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Huckabee.

Never count out voters

But the voters – bless ‘em – ignored the oddsmakers. They were determined to do their own thing – set the nation on a new course, sharply different from that of George W. Bush. It did not matter much to them that McCain was too old, by conventional standards, to be running or that Obama's mixed-race background broke the historic color line on the presidency.

It was the emergence of these two implausible but impressive candidates that gave 2008 its special stamp. But they prevailed only after fierce struggles. The drama continued at the conventions. In St. Paul, the Republicans cheered McCain's surprise choice of a new heroine, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as his vice presidential candidate. I was transported back to San Francisco's Moscone Center in 1984, when Walter Mondale made Geraldine Ferraro the first woman on a national ticket. In both cases, the euphoria was as genuine as it was short-lived.

For decades, I have said the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign was the best I ever saw. But most of the drama came after Labor Day. This time, the excitement was generously distributed over a whole year.

What a show it has been – the best campaign I've ever covered.