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Sen. Obama Lingers in Iowa Ahead of Votes


In this long presidential campaign, there are now less than a hundred days until the first actual vote. For Barack Obama, the Iowa contest is key - the chance to challenge Hillary Clinton for frontrunner status in the fight for the Democratic nomination.

All this week, Obama stopped in Iowa communities - large and small - urging voters to sign on to his movement.

And NPR's David Greene spent this week following Obama.

DAVID GREENE: Wherever he goes, Barack Obama loves to tell a story. It's about a day over the summer when he was tired from campaigning. He was drenched from the rain and he stopped at a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. Only a couple dozen people were there, but someone caught his attention.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I looked back and there's this little woman. She's about 5'2, 5'3. She's about 60 years old, got an outfit, She's got a big church hat on.

GREENE: And she was loud. She started saying this chant: Fired up, ready to go.

Sen. OBAMA: She'd say fired up, and everybody says fired up. And she says ready to go, and - says, ready to go. And my staff and I, we didn't know what to do. We're sort of standing there, just kind of looking around. Here's the thing, though. After a minute or two, I'm feeling kind of fired up, and I'm feeling like I'm ready to go, so I joined in the chant.

GREENE: Obama recounted the story this week inside a barn in the town of Washington, Iowa. And he said the point is if one woman in South Carolina can lift the spirits in a room, one voice can help change a country or even the world. One of the Iowans listening to Obama was a retired school teacher named Sharon Merks(ph).

Ms. SHARON MERKS (Retired School Teacher): I think he's a very impressive speaker, and I think his idea that we have to have hope is excellent.

GREENE: But Merks says she's just not sure the country will rally around Obama's methods.

What do you think he has to do to move the polls?

Ms. MERKS: I'm not sure. Maybe walk on water. I don't know.

GREENE: So you think it's going to be tough?

Ms. MERKS: I do think it'll be tough.

GREENE: And the Obama campaign knows that. In speeches and in an ad campaign, Obama asks people to believe, not just in his ability to change Washington, but in their own. Voters across Iowa said they loved hearing him this week. Still, not everyone was expressing that sense of personal purpose Obama is looking for.

David Dickie(ph), a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, saw Obama at an event on his campus. When it was time to ask the candidate questions, Dickie stood up.

Mr. DAVID DICKIE (University of Iowa): How do you actually think that you can unify the country when there's all these wedge issues, specifically on the wedge issues such as abortion and gun control and gay marriage?

Sen. OBAMA: Yeah.

Mr. DICKIE: And then how do you also compromise with people who refuse to take any troops out, you know? How are you actually going to reunify us?

Sen. OBAMA: Good. Well, it's a great question.

GREENE: Obama gave a long answer that included looking back to when he was a state senator.

Sen. OBAMA: I have the experience of bringing people together to get things done like I did in the Illinois legislature providing health insurance to kids who didn't have it, or by fixing a death penalty system that was broken.

GREENE: Afterwards, Dickie sounded satisfied if not inspired.

Mr. DICKIE: I don't know. He didn't get too specific, but it was pretty good.

GREENE: What message do you leave with from this event? What did you hear from Obama, if you were to sum it up?

Mr. DICKIE: I don't know. Just some hope that we can try to get along and try to find common ground - just a little bit of hope. Other than that, I don't really know.

GREENE: Rebecca Cowall(ph), a dance history professor, said Obama has the potential to change how the U.S. is seen by the world.

Ms. REBECCA COWALL (Dance History Professor): The day he's elected, the presentation of the states of American will change. For me, I think that's one of the most powerful messages that he can present.

GREENE: Cowall said she likes Obama.

Mr. COWALL: When I come to events like this, I feel more and more sure. But when I'm tracking the national polls and also trying to weigh Obama's electibility, I think I get concerned about that.

GREENE: So Cowall said it's not Obama she doubts, it's whether there's a movement.

Mr. COWALL: I would like to believe that a black man could be elected president, and I would like to believe that somebody with an idealistic message and a message of hope could be elected in this country. And I'm just not quite sure, as intriguing and attractive as that message might sound to voters across the country, if people will actually go to the ballot box and vote.

GREENE: There are still weeks for people to decide, of course, and Iowans said that's plenty of time for Obama to make something special happen.

David Greene, NPR News, Decorah, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.