It was Iowa that stripped Hillary Clinton of her cloak of inevitability. There, on a cold January night, she stumbled out of the starting gate and finished a shocking third in the nation's first-in-the-nation presidential contest. The vulnerabilities of her "I'm-a-national-candidate" campaign strategy were revealed, and Barack Obama emerged as a bona fide force.
It is also in Iowa where some of Clinton's most loyal women supporters have watched with a mixture of pride and disappointment as time runs out on her historic effort to be the first woman in the White House. They are now grappling with frustration, some anger, and palpable grief as the end approaches.
"I've still got her signs up in my yard," says Rebecca Olafsen, 58, a middle school teacher and Democratic activist from Monona. "And the signs stay up - I take my cues from her."
"But I've got my big girl pants on," she says. "This was the moment, but the stars seem to be crossed for her."
Clinton's hard-core women supporters in Iowa have remained fiercely supportive of their candidate as they've watched the primary season play out. And in frank discussions over the past few days have offered up stinging criticisms of not only the news media's coverage of the campaign, which they have found tinged with misogyny, but also of the Clinton camp's own primary and caucus strategy -including its failed maiden effort in Iowa.
Several characterized as sexist calls for Clinton to step down before the primary season ends on June 3, even though official delegate counts have already put the nomination essentially out of her reach. "Why should she stop? Because as a female you're supposed to get out for the sake of unanimity?" says Diane Kolmer, 53, a retired lobbyist from West Des Moines. "There are still delegates to be pursued and people who have waited a long time to vote in a primary for her. She's honoring their belief in her."
And at least a few of the women say they're not sure whether they'll vote for Obama in the fall. Olafsen's Democratic friends are "working on me gently," she says, talking to her about fighting the good fight and "sucking it up" for the sake of the party. Women like Ann Stough, 39, an activist from Panora, will be a harder sell. "There's nothing in his background that shows me he'll be an effective leader in foreign relations, moving a budget, or leading Congress forward toward reasonable principles," she says. But she says she won't vote for presumed GOP nominee John McCain.
All the women interviewed had sharp words for Clinton campaign strategists - beginning in Iowa, where, Stough says, they failed to tailor her message to audiences, and applied an "absurd amount of pressure" on campaign workers to get potential voters to sign pledge cards. Organizers viewed the cards as the most reliable guarantee that supporters would show up on caucus night. But potential voters felt so harassed, Stough said, that they would sign just to make campaign volunteers leave them alone. That meant that "all the counts were skewed," Stough says. "The foundation of their castle was flawed."
Kolmer and others said the Clinton campaign's strategy of positioning her as a national candidate who would wrap up the nomination by the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries was stunningly naïve. The float-above-the-fray plan backfired immediately in Iowa, one activist said, when Obama's charisma on the stump began captivating crowds and grabbing headlines. And Clinton was "hurt terrifically," Kolmer says, by the campaign's failure to have a legitimate post-Super Tuesday plan.
"They really had no organization after Super Tuesday and I couldn't believe that - I was incredulous," Kolmer says. "I've seen too many campaigns up close and personal fall apart because they weren't in the bag when they thought they would be."
The women found President Bill Clinton's presence on the trail for his wife a mixed bag, though Olafsen and Kolmer were among those who said that, on balance, he was a drain, a distraction. "She really needed to pull away from him, be her own self and have him, as they say, on the porch," Kolmer said.
Some of their harshest comments were reserved for the media, and particularly cable television hosts and pundits - a complaint the Clinton campaign has repeated for months. From the day of Iowa's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an annual Democratic fundraiser last fall at which all the candidates spoke, Obama, whose well-received speech was seen as a turning point in his campaign, became the "media darling," Olafsen said. "Early on she was proclaimed the queen, and then he was crowned. And it became a case of don't let anything get in the way of this train." Obama was a blank slate, and Clinton was the caricature, Olafsen says, portrayed as "being difficult and bitchy - they love that word. For a woman, it's a fine line. Too much [strength] is bitchy and too little, you're a weakling. She carried all of those caricatures as excess baggage, and that's a heavy load."
They are contemplating Clinton's end game, especially now that former presidential candidate John Edwards, the second-place finisher in Iowa's caucuses, has endorsed Obama. "She needs to go through this in a magnanimous, gracious way," says Kolmer, who when asked if she'll vote for Obama replied: "Hell, yes."
A vice presidential slot for Clinton? Maybe, says Donna Buell, 47, a lawyer in Spirit Lake. "I would like to see Hillary become either Senate Majority leader or vice president, nothing less," Buell says.
Clinton may not be the nominee in the end, says Kolmer, but "a helluva lot of people wanted her to be." And by remaining in the game, several women say, she has only made Obama a stronger candidate.
Says Stough: "I hope she gives her concession speech at the convention. She deserves it."