August 28, 2008

Article at Political Theatre blog (The Hollywood Reporter)

The Harkin Steak Fry and Obama-mania

DENVER - Just about a year ago, on a hot, late summer's day in rural Iowa, I first encountered Obama-mania,.

It was the Harkin Steak Fry, an annual event sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that usually draws every presidential candidate craving the boost in the Iowa caucus the following January. Back then, there was a feeling (remember that?) that Sen. Hillary Clinton was going to walk away with the nomination. She was there.

But there were many other candidates who attended. Among them: Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, John Edwards.

And Barack Obama.

At this point, Obama was renowned for his 2004 DNC keynote and his rapid rise from Illinois State Senate to the U.S. Senate. He had a lot of support in Hollywood, and he had already one big accomplishment in energizing the youth. But he still wasn't ahead of Clinton.

I remember that day, and covered it for The Hollywood Reporter as the inaugural Political Theatre feature, because everyone I respected in this business told me it was the best gauge of what was happening in Election 2008.

"You gotta go to the Steak Fry," said one well-known journalist.

More than 15,000 showed up, ate steak and potato salad, and heard 10-minute speeches from each of the candidates. I learned many things that hot September afternoon, not the least being that Iowans sure do take their politics seriously.

At the Steak Fry, candidates arrive from different ends of the field, followed by their supporters, and head toward the stage. I thought, arriving hours before, that Clinton had the best ground operation. Her volunteers owned the front, loud and boisterous. Clinton made a grand entrance, as did Edwards, on opposite ends. Richardson and Dodd and Biden didn't trail as many followers. But Obama beat them all. I know it's a cliche now, but he made a rock star's entrance, walking past the Clinton signs through the front. Every step, he drew more people to him, and it became almost a snail's pace as he stopped to talk.

About an hour later, he spoke. It seemed customary that after a spectator's candidate spoke, they'd move out of the scrum. When Obama came to the podium, in a light blue shirt and khakis, no one moved.

I've seen him since, in debates and on the trail in New York and New Hampshire, and it's only become a larger phenomena, Obama-mania. But back then in Iowa, it was hard to imagine that the road would lead here to an 80,000-seat football stadium and American political history.

But it has.