ADEL, Iowa — Hillary Clinton stood at the top of a bowling lane and delivered her stump speech to supporters packed into the Family Fun Center here. When she finished, it seemed, for a moment, like she would roll a ball down the lane, and photographers pushed to the front to get the shot.
But this is Hillary Clinton. She made the safe choice, the one political insiders would understand, the one that guaranteed she wouldn’t throw a gutter ball. The owner, a smidgen disappointed, suggested they could bowl in the White House if she wins.
“That will definitely make it into the plans,” Clinton replied.
This is the norm for Clinton’s play-by-the-rules campaign, and it’s left many Democratic voters looking for inspiration elsewhere. Her campaign message is similar — it’s about pragmatism, experience, avoiding risks.
Her leading opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, goes exactly the other way — talking revolution, making bold and probably unrealistic promises, and, so far, mostly rolling strikes. If polls are right, he stands a good chance of topping Clinton both here and in New Hampshire next week.
Though Clinton arrived in this state via her “Scooby van” 10 months ago with every possible advantage, she finds herself struggling to find a way to best Sanders, a man who finally found an audience for his message of “political revolution” after a quarter of a century on the fringes of Washington.
Whether Clinton wins in Iowa Monday will depend on her ability to use overwhelming organizational and establishment firepower to convince voters that she’s the one who can deliver on the promises she’s making, and has the skills and experience to be an effective president. A victory here would probably return Clinton to the glide path to the nomination.
It would also vanquish Clinton’s ghosts of 2008, when she was out-organized by Barack Obama. This time, Team Clinton is projecting confidence, with top campaign aides asserting they have run a tighter operation. Clinton has only a slight edge, with a 3 percent lead based on an average of recent polls tracked by the website Real Clear Politics.
In recent days, Clinton’s campaign has bolstered its case by trotting out the heads of major Democratic interest groups. Gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords popped up in Ames, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards preached in North Liberty, and Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin stirred up supporters in West Des Moines.
Former president Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea joined Clinton in the state to make the case that the family should have another turn in the White House.
Her opponent? Bernie Sanders has been joined by rapper Killer Mike, ice cream moguls Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and activist Cornel West.
And he’s got the crowds. Nearly 63,000 Iowans have attended his rallies since he began campaigning in April, the campaign boasted Saturday. Clinton’s campaign has tended toward smaller events where she can have more direct interaction with voters.
“With Bernie Sanders you are hearing something new, and with Hillary Clinton you are hearing the same thing you heard eight years ago,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who watched Clinton stump in Des Moines.
“She doesn’t show her emotions. Iowa isn’t just about policy, it’s also about people and who you are as a person,” Luntz said. “So, all you have to do is look around. Did you see anyone screaming? Or so excited to be there? I didn’t.”
On the flip side, she has one very apparent advantage: experienced worker bees, many of them women, on whom the campaign is relying to identify Clinton supporters and pester them repeatedly so they show up Monday night at caucuses and stay for hours.
“Everyone in that room knows how to do a caucus,” Luntz said. “They are experienced doing it.”
Here’s one of the Clinton campaign’s favorites: Cindy Pollard. She showed up last week at Berg Middle School in Newton for a “get out the caucus” rally clad in a Clinton campaign T-shirt from 2008. Pollard hosted a watch party to see Clinton’s announcement speech with her neighbors in April, even though she’d never met Hillary Clinton.
Now her iPhone was full of photos she’d taken with Clinton, and she bragged about the thousands of doors she’s knocked on.
“[Clinton] has built a very broad-based, statewide organization, which she didn’t do in 2008,” said former senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has endorsed Clinton. “It’s not enough to have a lot of people cheering and stomping. You have to have people who are willing to go to the caucuses statewide, broadly based.”
At each event, Clinton is introduced by a volunteer — often from the area — who explains his or her own reasons for volunteering. In Newton, a working-class town of 15,000 just east of Des Moines, she marveled that more than 88,000 parts are used to make wind turbines, including blades that are manufactured in the town.
Sanders is calling for a leftist uprising. Clinton’s pitch is milder and more familiar, sympathizing with the frustrations of middle-class life. “We have to get rid of the FAFSA form that people have to fill out,” she said in Newton, about federal student financial aid paperwork.
Her remarks can, however, veer into complicated policy matters. She regularly criticizes the recent merger between Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls and Ireland-based Tyco International. The deal, known as an inversion, will move Johnson’s corporate headquarters overseas, allowing the new company to pay lower corporate taxes.
“It’s not an inversion; it should be called a perversion,” Clinton says.
Left unmentioned were Clinton’s family ties to the firm. Since 2009, Johnson Controls has been a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, which is led by Bill Clinton, and the firm has donated as much as $250,000 to the charity in membership dues.
But overall, critics and supporters agree that she sounds more relaxed and confident on the trail.
US Representative David Loebsack, a Clinton supporter and Iowa’s sole Democratic elected official in the federal government, noticed a difference in tone when Clinton appeared on a CNN forum.
“We all know that movie ‘Spinal Tap,’ right? Turning it up to 11?” he said, referring to the 1984 cult spoof about a heavy metal band. “That’s what I told her when it was over. I went over and gave her a hug and said, ‘Madam Secretary, you turned it up to an 11 today.’ ”
On the stump, she calls on people and draws out their stories and pulls them up close. In Des Moines, it was a person who ran out of health care coverage. In Newton, it was Annette Bebout, an elderly woman who lost her home.
As Bebout became emotional, Clinton reached out to her, putting her left hand on the woman’s shoulder and then hugging her.
“I could see her eyes water,” Bebout said. “She cared. She cared.”
Others were skeptical, including Jerry Landgrebe. He could support Clinton with one condition: “If she cuts her ties to Wall Street,” he said.
Should Clinton clinch the nomination, and most of the Democratic establishment believes she ultimately will no matter what happens in Iowa, her grind-it-out style might be up against a more freewheeling Republican candidate with fervent backers.
That could pose problems for the Clinton operation with people such as Nicole Spencer. She arrived at a Clinton event at a middle school gym in Marshalltown last week and looked disappointed. “This is rinky-dink; this is very unprofessional,” she said.
She’d just been mesmerized by a Donald Trump rally — held in a much grander venue at the town’s domed high school gymnasium, where the crowd was packed to the rafters.
“For me, it was like going to Las Vegas,” she said. “You know he is going to put on a good show.”
In fact, the show was so good that this lifelong Democrat thought about November.
“She should get the Democratic ticket,” Spencer said of Clinton. “But I just don’t know that I like her over Trump.”Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.