The first person to arrive outside Des Moines' HyVee Center on Saturday morning a mere seven hours before Oprah Winfrey would take the stage was Heather Spurlin. Dressed for a long wait in snowy 12-degree weather, Spurlin, 37, is exactly the kind of person Barack Obama hoped Oprah would draw: a woman voter who knows what she's doing every day at 4pm, but isn't sure whom she'll support on Jan. 3. "Oprah's so personable and funny," said Spurlin, who's never caucused before but participated in an Obama campaign training session in order to get her ticket. "I hope to caucus this time. Right now I'm torn between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, though today may help me make up my mind."
Obama's Oprah offensive was calibrated not just to get women's support though of course, that would be nice but to get Iowa's women to pay attention to the race, full stop. In 2004, just 66,690 of 340,241 female registered Democrats in Iowa caucused. Even a few thousand more could make a difference; sure enough, with Oprah as a sweetener, 1,385 people (no gender statistics were available) worked four-hour volunteer shifts for Obama in order to qualify for a ticket to Winfrey's appearance. (The campaign distributed a total of 12,000 tickets to supporters with another 11,000 given away online.)
Obama was making gains with Iowa women even before Oprah's arrival a November Des Moines Register poll showed Obama topping Hillary Clinton with Iowa women for the first time, with his 31% to Clinton's 26% and Winfrey's appearance certainly kept up the momentum. When she took the stage in a purple velvet suit, the mostly female crowd exploded in joy. Many women were moved to tears. "Iowa Hellloo! Hellloo!" yelled Winfrey. "Oh my goodness. At last, I'm here!"
Other than a bit of campaign sniping between America's two most influential women Clinton, in Des Moines on Friday: "Change is just a word if you don't have the experience to back it up"; Winfrey, defending Obama Saturday: "We recognize that the amount of time you spend in Washington means nothing unless you're accountable for the judgments you made at the time you had them" the weekend was gentle and apolitical. Winfrey tried to motivate the HyVee crowd, but she didn't talk policy so much as treat Obama like a favorite book; she raved about how much he moved her, and told her friends to check him out. Obama stood by in a black suit and white shirt with no tie, soaking it all in before giving a version of his standard 30-minute stump speech.
The real effect of Oprah on Iowa won't be known until the caucus, but in the short term her cameo appeared to achieve what the Obama campaign hoped it would. "Obama's got some really good ideas," said Spurlin at the end of the rally. "But then so does Hillary, and I liked her husband a lot." Sure enough, Bill Clinton will be in Des Moines on Monday, and Spurlin may go see him as well. If nothing else, Des Moines is drawing the A-List.