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Rerunning the Heart Versus Brain Race

By Reid Wilson

DES MOINES - Anyone supporting a candidate not named Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton finds it suspicious that the two top-running Democrats always find themselves in the middle of the stage, or ending a night of speeches. Tonight, in Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the two showed they deserve top billing.

Whether the crowds they attract, largely bussed in from around the state, create a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, Clinton and Obama provided the strongest contrasts before a packed house at the annual Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson Jackson dinner, both winning the loudest applause and the stillest silence.

Obama, ending what many have called his best week on the campaign trail all year, was not the absent-minded professor, a sometimes cerebral and aloof speaker who occasionally leaves audiences hungering for more emotion. Tonight, egged on by a rabid crowd of supporters, Obama was on fire, alternately taking more direct shots at Clinton and offering red meat when beating up on Republicans.

"When I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I support that Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders we don't like," he said.

Citing the "fierce urgency of now," Obama made his case for a new direction in politics. "I believe there is such a thing as being too late, and that hour is almost upon us," Obama warned.

Clinton, speaking immediately prior to Obama, took the opportunity to unveil a new slogan: "Turn up the heat." The candidate led a call and response in which she indicted Republicans and the Bush Administration with a litany of sins, as her crowd, which along with Obama's had been cued to certain lines, urged her to turn up the heat.

The message implicit in Clinton's new slogan spoke not just to Republicans, but to fellow Democrats. "It's going to get a little hotter out there, but you know, that's fine with me, because as Harry Truman once said, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," she said. "I'm real comfortable in the kitchen.

Clinton won't say it, but she has a score to settle. The address to Iowa Democrats came after a shoddy debate performance and recent stumbles on the campaign trail, including revelations that campaign staffers have planted several questions at town hall meetings in Iowa this year. But whether it is Republicans, at whom she openly lobs bombs, or fellow Democrats, who she implicitly argues against, Clinton's stump speech is littered with barbs. "Change is just a word if you don't have the strength or experience to make it happen," she said.

Experienced politicians seem to know how to handle a crowd that teeters on the brink of control. For Obama, the throngs of screaming supporters, who had been cued to cheer at specific lines, offered an opportunity to gaze at a far-away rafter or crowd of supporters. For Clinton, whose stage presence is of competence and a projection of strength, the virtually mutinous hordes of supporters allowed her to strut the stage confidently. Either of the two performances, seen on camera, could inspire comparisons to an acceptance speech at a convention in August.

Though his campaign and his supporters are desperate to remind the media that he is within striking distance of both front-runners in Iowa, John Edwards was unfortunate enough to draw the short straw and be forced into the lead-off spot. Focusing on his normal stump speech, with emphasis on trade deals gone awry, the war in Iraq and the health care system, Edwards gave a strong performance.

The former Senator reiterated a message little more than a week old. "It is time to give America hope," he said. "It is time to give these entrenched interests that are standing against America hell." But as Clinton and Obama finished up about three hours after Edwards left the stage, his message seemed drowned out.

For others in the race, no address truly offered a game-altering dynamic. The three second-tier candidates, all with more experience than the front-runners, seem simply unable to compete for oxygen largely taken up by celebrity candidates.

Perhaps the only person who stole the stage as much as any front-runner was the night's Master of Ceremonies, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who won thunderous applause throughout the night and warm words from each candidate. The Speaker rattled off six long, detailed introductions without notes and hugged or shook hands with every candidate as they bounded up the stage.

Iowa Democrats injected some levity into the proceedings, which cost Pelosi, literally. The dean of Iowa's House delegation, long-time Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, an amateur auctioneer, raffled off a stuffed donkey signed by each of the Democratic contenders. The winner, at a whopping $1,900, was Pelosi's husband, Paul. She made some of that money back for the party, though, as an autographed scarf of hers went for $6,500, a new Jefferson Jackson Dinner record.

In 2003, John Kerry used the Jefferson Jackson Dinner to build a foundation from which to catapult himself back to the top of the pack. Tonight, after a stellar performance, Barack Obama's team hopes he will find a similar result. Clinton's own performance, she hopes, will go a long way to re-establishing her as the unquestioned front-runner, impervious to flaws.

But other candidates had to be disappointed. Tonight, like many Democratic gatherings this year, was all about the Hillary and Barack show.

The two are setting up a dramatic clash that some Democrats have seen coming all along. Obama's fiery enthusiasm makes him the candidate of the heart. Clinton's solid pragmatism makes her the candidate of the brain. That race has been run before, whether between Heart Dean and Brain Kerry in 2004, Heart Glenn, and then Hart, versus Brain Mondale, and any number of other times. Obama's camp has to hope that this time, just this once, the heart wins out.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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