DES MOINES – The church of Oprah Winfrey was in session Saturday, drawing thousands of Iowans to hear her say why she supports Barack Obama for president.

“When you listen to Barack Obama, when you really hear him, you witness a very rare thing,” she said in Des Moines. “You witness a politician who has an ear for eloquence and a tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth.”

Winfrey, the television talk show host from Obama’s hometown of Chicago, stood at a podium on a small riser, with the crowd around her on all sides. Obama’s staff said 18,500 people were present, which would make it the largest Iowa event held for a single candidate this year.

In an afternoon rich with religious allusions, Winfrey began by saying she’s nervous in her new role as a political advocate.

“It feels like I’m out of my pew, I’m out of my terrain,” she said.

Obama supporters hope Winfrey’s star power will help their candidate win over undecided voters, particularly undecided women. The U.S. senator from Illinois is locked in a close race in Iowa with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

The audience traveled through freezing rain to get to Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines. The event was the first stop on a trip that will continue over the next few days in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Nedra Sparland, a retired federal employee from Johnston, wore a badge identifying her as a precinct captain for Obama. She said she’s never volunteered for a candidate before.

“It’s pretty darn exciting,” she said, as the crowd formed long lines to enter the hall.

Gordon Fischer of Des Moines, an Obama supporter and the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said Winfrey brought more excitement than he has ever seen at a political event in Iowa.

“I know this is totally sacrilegious and I should not say this, but the only thing I can compare this to is when the Pope visited Iowa,” Fischer said, referring to Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

Obama took the stage after his wife Michelle and after Winfrey.

“You know you’ve got a pretty good show when I’m the third-best speaker,” he said.

He gave a revised version of his speech from last month’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines. He said he would value good ideas over poll-driven ideas.

“We can’t have a timid politics. We need a bold politics,” he said.

Dan Gearino can be reached at 515-243-0138 and dan.gearino@lee.net.

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