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Michelle Obama utters a forbidden phrase

Surrogate campaigners are usually a boon to presidential campaigns because they attract crowds and publicity in places and at times when the candidate is somewhere else. Candidate spouses, mainly wives, are especially popular surrogates because they bring a kind of intimate personal knowledge to the eager crowd, if sometimes a little controversy.

But every once in a while, an overeager surrogate or a political neophyte steps smack into a cow pie. Campaign workers gulp, alert headquarters and move into instant damage control without actually admitting the mistake or criticizing the surrogate, especially if she's the boss's wife.

Such is the case today in the Barack Obama Iowa camp. Late yesterday in Davenport, Michelle Obama was urging campaign workers to, well, work very hard to produce a strong Obama showing in the January caucus.

"Iowa will make the difference," she said. "If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it is just a dream." She said some other stuff about how good it would be to win Iowa. But she'd already stepped in it.

Iowa is about expectations, not necessarily winning. Some nobody can creep into third place and because it was unexpected, be suddenly vaulted into prime time. Typically, the top three candidates emerge from Iowa looking good. John Edwards came out second last time to John Kerry and parlayed that into the vice presidential nomination.

Remember someone named Bill Clinton? He finished second in New Hampshire in 1992 despite all that marital infidelity business and made himself the Comeback Kid because he was expected to do worse. Hard to imagine Avis salesmen chanting, "We're No. 2! We're No. 2!" But in politics, that can work.

Obama could conceivably come out of Iowa, where he's in a tight race with Hillary Clinton and Edwards, even with a strong third-place finish and with his money and crowds carry on to New Hampshire, where new polls indicate two-thirds of independents intend to vote in the Democratic primary. They like fresh faces and blood, given how they fueled John McCain's 19-point stomping of George W. Bush in 2000.

The absolute last thing any candidate wants is to create the impression or expectation that he/she must win or it's all over.

So sleep was no doubt short in the Obama camp last night. Right away today out came Tommy Vietor, a spokesman, to say, "Every campaign has said it's important to do well in Iowa, and that's our goal." And he hastened to add the Obama campaign would continue regardless of the Iowa outcome. But now the subject is out there, and for a few days at least Obama folks can expect questions from local TV crews about having to win Iowa.

Edwards and Clinton spokesmen, not being nincompoops, declined to predict how well they would do or to define "success."

All of that could be expected.

--Andrew Malcolm

 
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Good thing the Clinton campaign today trotted out Kerrey to stick his foot in his mouth and/or subtly smear Obama. That'll dominate the discourse for the next few days, methinks.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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