Nov. 12, 2007 — -- The six leading Democratic presidential candidates showed up for the Iowa Democratic Party's big Jefferson Jackson Dinner on Saturday night, and five of them gave very good speeches.
Barack Obama's was excellent. It was one of the best of his campaign.
The passion he showed should help him close the gap on Hillary Clinton by tipping some undecided caucusgoers his way.
His oratory was moving, and he successfully contrasted himself with the others — especially Clinton — without being snide or nasty about it.
That was an important thing for him to do. Historically, the Iowa party's "JJ" dinner is a landmark event in Democratic presidential caucus campaigns. All the key party activists, donors and players are present. This year, about 9,000 of them showed up.
(Most were from Iowa, though there was some grumbling that Obama packed the place with ringers from Illinois. Joe Biden even greeted them in his speech. The charge that they brought in outsiders was denied by the Obama people, who were nevertheless pleased they beat the other candidates in the noise war inside Veterans Memorial Auditorium.)
What's important isn't the hoopla. It's what the candidate does on the stage and while all did quite well, Obama was particularly impressive. Should he come from behind to win the Iowa caucuses, Saturday's dinner will be remembered as one of the turning points in his campaign here. For example:
• He said the Iraq war "should have never been authorized and should have never been waged," a shot at the votes Clinton and most of the others cast in favor of it.
• Obama took another dig at the Clinton era when he said "we have a chance to bring the country together to tackle problems that George Bush made far worse and that festered long before George Bush took office."
• He tweaked Clinton for not taking questions at some of her events by saying: "Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers just won't be popular just won't do it." (Clinton is also currently vexed by controversy over her staff trying to plant questions with Iowans.)
• He said that "telling Americans what they think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do it." Translation: Obama is often inclined to say things party interest groups don't want to hear, like the need for school reform, merit pay negotiated with teachers' unions, more efficient cars or money to rebuild the military.
There were other contrasts, but his coup de grace came with this: "When I am the nominee of this party, the Republican nominee will not be able to say I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I support Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don't like."
Obama also asked Democrats to move to a new era in their party. He said: "I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s," a reference to the polarization of the Clinton years. "I don't want to pit red America against blue America," he added.
Obama also did something else he rarely does: He invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and adopted the cadence and uplifting touches of a traditional black preacher's sermon.
His speech was also noteworthy because of the hour it was given and the poor timing. He didn't start until after 11 p.m. and was the last one to speak — after most of the crowd had been sitting for four hours.
That's because the Iowa party did a disservice to the candidates by also loading up the program with Iowa politicians. They just aren't in the same league with their presidential candidates.
For a lover of political oratory, it was a little like listening to a long Beethoven symphony while having some kid play a Tonette between movements.