AMES, Iowa — Edith Wessel, an 80-year-old white-haired retired nurse, moved slowly up the aisle with her walker after listening to Hillary make her pitch.
She told one of the Hillary volunteers that she had "great admiration" for the senator, but also great doubts about whether her strong negatives would sink her in the general election.
"I can't understand why people dislike her so much," Wessel said.
The volunteer assured the wavering caucusgoer that the Republicans will slime anyone who gets the nomination and that Hillary has more experience wrestling them than her rivals.
Wessel is torn. She likes Obama but worries about his experience. She likes Hillary but worries about her baggage.
The presidential anglers here are dancing on the head of a pin. The Democratic race — three lawyers married to lawyers who talk too much — is very tight and very volatile. Even the jittery pack of seasoned political operatives gazing into their BlackBerrys doesn't seem to have a clue which way the Iowa snowdrifts are blowing.
Across town, Nancy Hibbs, a 57-year-old nurse, came to listen to John Edwards give his son-of-a-mill-worker rant against corporate greed, complete with a sneer aimed at Obama that anyone who thinks you can "just nice" the carnivorous Republican fat cats into submission is in "Never-Never Land."
Hibbs had decided after seeing Barack Obama a year ago that she would vote for him. She saw him again Monday night in Ames and felt even more certain that he was the one. After listening to Edwards for 40 minutes on Tuesday, she up and changed her mind, deciding to vote for him.
"You can tell in his voice he's not playing the game, you can hear his moral commitment," she said. "We need a big turnaround."
And what about Hillary? "I don't want the same old entrenched politics," she replied, adding emphatically, "And I don't want Bill in the White House again."
But Bill very much wants to be in the White House again. He is going around the state relentlessly, giving a speech as tightly choreographed with Hillary's as a "Dancing With the Stars" routine.
"Miss Bill? Vote Hill!" reads one button being sold outside their events. By the time Bill and Hill are finished with you, you could be forgiven for thinking that she had personally forged the peace accord in Northern Ireland while socking away the $127 billion Clinton budget surplus and dodging bullets en route to ending ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
The Big Dog pushed the experience card hard. "Whatever's fixin' to happen," whether it's something like 9/11, Katrina or Pakistan, he said, Hillary is better equipped to face it.
As to the health care debacle, he said, "Every president will fail at something or another." It's how they dust themselves off that counts.
And this, of course, is the heart of the matter, and something that voters can never really know — even if they study up as much as Iowans.
Has Hillary truly changed, and grown from her mistakes? Has she learned to be less stubborn and imperious and secretive and vindictive and entitled? Or has she merely learned to mask her off-putting and self-sabotaging qualities better? If elected, would the old Hillary pop up, dragging us back to the dysfunctional Clinton kingdom? She is speaking in a soft, measured voice in these final days, so that, as with Daisy Buchanan, you have to lean in to listen. But is she really different than she was in the years when she was so careless about the people around her getting hurt by the Clinton legal whirlwind that she was dubbed the Daisy Buchanan of the boomer set?
The underlying rationale for her campaign is that she is owed. Owed for moving to Arkansas and giving up the name Rodham, owed for pretending to care about place settings and menus when she held the unappetizing title of first lady, owed for enduring one humiliation after another at the hands of her husband.
Oddly, Barack and Michelle Obama also radiate a sense that they are owed. Not for a lifetime of sublimation and humiliation, but for this onerous campaign, for offering themselves up to save and uplift the nation, even though it disrupted their comfortable lives.
Michelle told Vanity Fair that Americans would have only one chance to anoint her husband, vowing "it's now or never" and explaining "there's an inconvenience factor there" and a "really, really hard" pressure and stress on the family that can only be justified if her husband can win the presidency and "change the world."
She told a group gathered at a nursing home in Grinnell on Monday that "Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics."
So it comes down to this: Will Queen Hillary reign? Will Prince Barack deign? And who is owed more?
c.2007 New York Times News Service