WATERLOO, Iowa--When Hillary Rodham Clinton's volunteers and staffers stand at the back of their candidate's events in Iowa, they sometimes play a little game one observer called "Count the oxygen tanks and wheelchairs."Howie P.S.: I wonder what the demo is for the Edwards people. I am going to push away from the computer screen now.Barack Obama's Iowa troops have their own rituals in the days leading up to the crucial Jan. 3 caucus -- one of them is making sure the high school kids who swarm their appearances turn 18 in time to vote.
If the Clinton-Obama confrontation figured to be a clash of gender and racial pathfinders, it's turned out in large measure to be a generational battle. Obama is gunning for 80 percent of the under-21 vote, his advisers say, while Clinton is banking on a bedrock of middle-aged and elderly voters who make up the majority of caucus-goers. It's a struggle, at least in a youth marketing sense, that's taken on the generation-war vibe of the "Mac vs. PC" commercials.
"Politicians are usually playing to the older people because they're the ones who vote, and we usually get shunted to the background," said Bryan Carter, 22, one of several Northwestern University undergrads who volunteered at an Obama event in Waterloo earlier this month. "Barack Obama is the first politician to speak to my generation. Hillary doesn't speak to me."
Each camp has its own age-related preoccupations. Clinton's people are deeply anxious about the weather -- icy sidewalks = broken hips = stay-at-home seniors. Obama's staff is organizing a bus caravan from the Chicago suburbs, where many University of Iowa students live, to caucus points near the university's main Iowa City campus, a school official said. The dorms at Drake University, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa will remain open during the first week of January, which could help Obama compensate for a winter break that could seriously hamper his turnout.
Iowa law allows out-of-state students who spend nine months of the year in-state to vote, but the Obama campaign's push to squeeze every vote from their ranks has sparked outrage from the Clinton camp, which accuses them of trying to "manipulate" the outcome.
Clinton has tried to maximize her demographic strengths too, albeit in a quieter, less controversial way, organizing handicapped-accessible vans and carpools to shuttle elderly Iowa voters who might otherwise be shut in by bad weather.
"None of these candidates can afford to be a Johnny One-note. All of them are appealing across-the-board, but they all have relative strengths and they are clearly targeting them," said University of Iowa politics professor Cary Covington.
Obama enjoys a more than 2-to-1 advantage, 41 to 19 percent, over Clinton among 18-to-44 year-old voters, according to a University of Iowa Hawkeye State poll taken in late October. His performance among younger voters was by far the best performance by any candidate in any age group.
Hillary Clinton's lead among older voters isn't quite as pronounced, but it's the highest of any candidate in the 45-and-older category at 31 percent.
John Edwards, whom many Clinton supporters believe (and some actually hope) will win, has staked out the generational middle, attracting a caucus-best 26 percent of 45-to-60 year-old Democrats.
If history's any guide, Clinton has an edge. In 2004, only 4 percent of 150,000 Democrats who caucused were under the age of 21, and Howard Dean's effort to mobilize college and high school students fizzled for lack of a solid statewide organization.
Moreover, the average age of caucus-goers is about 54, with a majority of them women, according to studies of recent polling. In part, that's because caucusing, unlike the 10-minute in-and-out process of primary voting, is a three-hour, evening-long event that doesn't tend to attract younger people, who are more likely to have crowded social and work schedules.
Obama's campaign says his overwhelming popularity with young voters is intended to put him over the top, not replace his already solid support from other demographic groups. They are framing their own pitch to older voters, selling his prescription drug plan and ensuring he records personalized messages for small rural radio stations with an elderly audience.
But there's no denying his special appeal to the under-30s. His top Iowa operative, Steve Hildebrand, says Obama has created a far-reaching youth recruitment effort with chapters in all the state's four-year and community colleges. He's also gone after 17-year-olds, capitalizing on a quirk in state law that allows teenagers to vote in the caucus if they turn 18 before the November 2008 general election.
"They've been some of our best volunteers and, more importantly, they've done a remarkable job getting their parents to vote for Barack," said Hildebrand, whose effort has reached 200 of the state's 320 high schools.
Hildebrand predicts Obama's presence will increase under-21 turnout from 4 percent in 2004 to 8 or 10 percent this time.
That doesn't impress Clinton's top strategist Mark Penn, a vocal critic of Obama's out-of-state student effort. Clinton is "especially strong with older voters and, I'll tell you, they certainly make up a lot more than 4 percent," he said.
Clinton isn't narrow-casting to senior citizens (as she does with women voters) but there's been an undeniable Ben Gay whiff at some recent campaign appearances. She often touts the support of one formerly hostile 102-year-old Iowa man, has run TV ads featuring her 88-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, and often emphasizes her appeal to women "in their 80s or 90s."
That creates logistical challenges to Clinton's operatives in rural counties, who are building a transportation network that will function even in a blizzard.
"It's major ... We have a lot older people living way out in the country and we have to get them into town," said Clinton precinct captain Jim Erb, mayor of Charles City, in the hard-frozen, north-central part of the state. "They're a big part of our strategy, so it's going to be key for us to get them out on caucus night."
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