An ice storm shut down roads and airports in Iowa Saturday, but that wasn't enough to stop the presidential campaign now roaring through the state. Democratic candidates took part in an afternoon forum and in the traditional Iowa Brown and Black Forum, which focused attention on issues affecting African Americans and Hispanics in the state.
Saturday night's forum was open to all the candidates — but none of the Republicans showed up. So the evening was a chance for the Democrats to reach out to some important audiences — African-American and Hispanic voters. The event also had a twist — each candidate had a chance to pose a question to someone else on stage.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina turned to his signature issue.
"The cause of ending poverty in America is a cause that's very central to what I want to do as president, and central to my life. ... And there is at least one other candidate on this stage who has also spoken, strongly and eloquently, about doing something about poverty in America, and it's Sen. [Barack] Obama [of Illinois], and I applaud him for having done that: I think our voices together are more powerful than our voices alone," he said.
Edwards has been taking every opportunity to attack the national front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. But Saturday night, Edwards used his question time to give Obama the floor, asking whether Obama would commit to raising the minimum wage to $9.50, indexed to rise with inflation.
Obama answered in the affirmative, to loud cheering.
Raising the minimum wage, Obama said, is just one way to help the black and Latino communities.
"When America gets a cold, black and brown America get pneumonia, and we've got pneumonia right now. ... We're moving in that direction, and we've got to do something about it. We've got to strengthen our unions. We have to raise the minimum wage and make sure it's not every 10 years, but it's keeping pace with inflation. It's got to be a livable wage," Obama said.
He also said that the tax code favors the wealthy and should be reformed.
The evening's moderators were Ray Suarez from PBS' NewsHour and NPR's Michele Norris, who asked about the public schools and whether they are growing more segregated.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said that's something the president should resist.
"I think we deprive our children tremendously in this country if we don't provide them with the opportunity to have that educational benefit, of working and living with people of different races, colors and ethnic groups. That's a major setback for our country. And the American president, utilizing the bully pulpit of the Oval Office, needs to make that case every single day if we're going to succeed in this effort," he said.
The only Hispanic on stage was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. At one point, he lodged a complaint.
"As the only brown member in this debate, is there any chance we could have civil rights equity and have the brown guy get a little more time?" he asked.
A few minutes later, the governor got his chance to question another candidate and turned to Clinton to ask whether she agreed that governors, such as himself and former president and governor Bill Clinton "make great presidents."
Sen. Clinton was clearly ready for him, smiling as she shot back: "I think they also make good vice presidents."
The forum went on despite bad weather that forced Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to drive seven hours from Chicago, arriving on stage nearly an hour into the debate.
The issue under discussion when Biden arrived was the competition between immigrants and African Americans for jobs and other opportunities. Biden got right into the fray.
"This is not a zero-sum game," Biden said. "I was offstage hearing about 'black' and 'Hispanic.' Look, that's what white boys have done a long time — banging people against one another. Let's get this straight, it has nothing to do with black versus Hispanic: There's plenty of opportunity for both," Biden said.
Suarez cited a finding that car accidents are a leading cause of death for Latino men. He noted that Hillary Clinton recently opposed granting a type of New York state driver's license to illegal immigrants. Clinton acknowledged the argument that driver's licenses might help ensure illegal immigrants learn to drive safely.
"But the real problem is that in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, you're asking the state, you're asking officials of the state, like the people of the department of motor vehicles, to, in effect, ratify someone who is not here legally as someone who is going to be given a privilege, a document from the state, and, you know, it just didn't bear up under a lot of scrutiny," she explained.
Among the audience-pleasing moments of the two-hour event was the response of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich to his chance to question a candidate. The often puckish Kucinich proceeded to question himself.
"Congressman Kucinich, is it true that you're the only one sitting up here ... who advocates a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care system, which would result in all 46 million Americans who are not insured, and another 50 million Americans who are under-insured ... being covered? And the answer to that question is, it is true," he said.
Earlier in the day, Kucinich was joined by Dodd, Obama and Edwards at another forum sponsored by a consortium of community service organizations. Dubbed the Heartland Presidential Forum, the event had 3,000 registrants and a good crowd despite the inclement conditions. Clinton participated by telephone. She was not present in person because she had flown the day before to New Hampshire, responding to the hostage-taking incident at one of her campaign headquarters there. No one was hurt in the incident, which resulted in one arrest.
A new Des Moines Register poll released Sunday showed the Democratic race tight between Obama and Clinton, with the Illinois senator's lead of three points falling within the 4.4-point margin of error. Edwards was third in the poll, but still very much in the running. The poll was taken among 500 Iowa Democrats who said they planned to take part in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses Jan. 3.
The same poll showed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee opening a 5-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa. Romney has been the candidate who spent the most time and money in the state over the past year, and has led in the polls in Iowa for months. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was third in that poll.
All the Republican candidates had been invited to debate this week in Des Moines, not only at the Brown and Black Forum but also at a TV event to be sponsored by the Republican Party of Iowa and Fox News and a radio-only event sponsored by Iowa Public Radio and NPR News.
The GOP candidates did not commit to any of these events.
The Iowa Public Radio/NPR debate for Democratic candidates can be heard beginning at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, live from Des Moines.