It’s never too early to campaign where primary season kicks off
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEJuly232007
WHY ALL ROADS LEAD TO IOWA
It’s never too early to campaign where primary season kicks off
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Creston, Iowa, pop. 7,600, lies southwest of the tidy state capital of Des Moines, through 70 silver-green miles of corn and soybeans, and past turnoffs for the birthplace of John Wayne, the covered bridges of Madison County, and a factory that turns corn syrup into a national supply of gummi bears. At the all-you-caneat Pizza Ranch restaurant in town, riding spurs decorate the walls and the pizzas have names like the “Bronco.” Inside, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the squarejawed former executive of an elite East Coast investment firm, is telling his life story to a few dozen farmers, retired schoolteachers, and small business owners, who listen politely over slices of apple-pie pizza.
“I know the heart of America,” says Romney, describing his God-fearing all-American
upbringing that strikes a chord in these parts. He leaves out the bit about being the son of a well-heeled governor who ran for president, about once supporting abortion rights and gay rights when he was governor of Massachusetts, about being a Mormon whose ancestors fled the country during a crackdown on polygamy. Instead, he lays it on thick about his wife of 38 years (“my sweetheart Ann”), his five sons (“all married”), his grandkids (“10!”), and his God (“I believe that Jesus Christ is my saviour; I believe the Bible is the word of God”). He decries capital gains taxes, illegal immigration, pornography, activist judges, and bilingual education, and warns that a Democratic president will raise taxes and socialize health care. (“We’re not going to let the people who ran Katrina run our health care system,” he declares.) It’s all well and good for a heartland stump speech, but this is Iowa, and when Romney finishes, one couple wants to know first things first: “What does your first name really stand for?”
The presidential election is still almost a
year and a half away, but Iowans are doing homework—vetting the long list of candidates up close and in person, often in their living rooms or backyards. Romney, who leads the Republican field in this state, has already hit some three dozen towns, taken out several thousand TV ads, and hired 20 full-time Iowa staffers. While he talks, campaign volunteers in ties and pearls will gather contact numbers and email addresses on little orange cards in what is perhaps the most important ground war of the presidential primary race.
The majority of his rivals are here doing the same thing. All this is forjan. 14, when Iowans will brave the cold to spend several hours in a school gym or a firehouse, making the nation’s first choice about who will be each party’s candidate in a process called a “caucus”—an occasionally raucous town-hall-style election that makes the quick secret balloting of most state primaries look like politics for sissies. At a caucus, you’ve got to show your face and explain why you support your candidate. If your man has a weird name, you’d better be able to say why. (Mitt is Willard Romney’s middle name, and it takes after a relative who was a 1920s quarterback with the Chicago Bears.)
Iowa, which has usually been first in the nation’s primary season for the past 30 years, was supposed to lose its exalted influence this year. More states are moving up their primaries to late January, and 20 states are to make their decision on Feb. 5. But in some ways that could make Iowa more important, because there will be little time to change whatever
momentum comes out of the caucuses. So heaven help the candidate who doesn’t show the proper respect for “politikin’ Iowa style.” “Show up on time, for cryin’ out loud! People have parking meters to feed, you know,” said a letter to the editor published in the Des Moines Register after a visit by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who leads the
GOP field nationally, but trails in Iowa.
Why do they do it? “Because somebody has to,” says Chris Robinson, 53, a secretary who lived for a time in Texas, and is glad that Iowans have the first say because “in the Midwest, you have more common sense.” She spent her Fourth of July afternoon at a picnic in Pleasantville listening to Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. At an elementary school gym, Dodd chatted with small groups of Iowans about immigration, public service, health care and his trick knee, rushing to shake hands before they began calling the bingo numbers. Dodd says the Iowa process gives a candidate like him—who barely registers in the polls—a chance to be heard. “Once you go to the big states, then you don’t do this anymore. There’s got to be a place in America where people get a chance to feel you, touch you and figure out who the hell you are,” he says. Looking at the polite Iowa ladies around the table, Dodd corrects himself. “Excuse me... who the heck you are.” Iowa is proving a challenge for Giuliani, and for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, who is redoubling her efforts in the face of a strong following here for John Edwards (they are tied). She officially trots out her husband for the first time at the state fairgrounds in Des Moines. Amid pavilions selling onion rings and meatballs-on-a-stick, hundreds of Iowans, many of them boomer-aged women, stand in line for an hour and a half to get in. “Don’t kid yourself,” says Scott Berry, a 59year-old Des Moines real estate agent. “Half the people here came to see Bill.”
The Clintons strike a well-choreographed pose: he standing deferentially behind the candidate, but with his hands supportively on her shoulders. Bill Clinton then declares that he would campaign for her “even if we
weren’t married.” He even credits her Senate work on Ground Zero illnesses for saving the lives of ailing 9/11 firefighters, with such voicecracking Arkansas pathos that you’d be forgiven for thinking she had gone running into the flaming towers herself.
Then the candidate starts in with personal tales to rival Romney’s. “I was born in Chicago. I’m from the middle of America,” says the senator, who not so long ago was trying to persuade New York voters that she was one of them. She confides about the dysfunctional childhood of her mother, who only
learned what a real family was like by becoming a nanny at age 13, and her father, who prized “individual responsibility and self-reliance.” Meanwhile, the former president dutifully gazes up adoringly at the candidate, crouching on the stage to do so.
Clinton goes on to talk about setting “goals” for the country—health insurance for all Americans, energy independence, and universal pre-kindergarten for every four-yearold. Describing the respect the American flag once received abroad, she says, “I want to be the president that restores that feeling around the world. I want to restore that feeling about ourselves.” She adds that she has an advantage as a woman, because “we’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do.” When she finishes, fireworks explode presidentially overhead. And very presidentially, she takes no questions.
But Monica McCarthy, the Democratic county chair for the surrounding Union county, is not won over. “I went to Hill and Biliary last night. There were lots of people. But you come here, it’s small-town, it’s faceto-face,” she says at a Crestón backyard barbecue for Delaware Senator Joe Biden. “They say in person she is warm. She needs to show that.” McCarthy is looking for a fighter. “Last time, we didn’t fight back. This time around, you come against us and boom, we’re giving it back to you with both hands,” she says.
IOWANS ARE VETTING THE CANDIDATES UP CLOSE AND IN PERSON, OFTEN IN THEIR BACKYARDS OR LIVING ROOMS
Iowa is in many ways a poor litmus test for the national mood. The population is more rural than the nation at large, and more white. But what Iowans lack in diversity, they
make up for in the kind of bred-in-the-bone earnestness that has led banker Karl Knock to spend a July afternoon perspiring over 120 beef and pork burgers on the grill in the backyard of his elegant Crestón colonial. As he waits for Biden, Knock frets that he should have grilled bratwurst. “The pork patties aren’t staying together.” Biden arrives, also sweating after hitting a few towns already this day. “What a beautiful house,” he tells Knock, who introduces the loquacious chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee as a guy “who doesn’t talk in 20-second sound bites.” Skipping personal stories, Biden delves into his seven visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and his detailed plan for bringing a decentralized federalism to Iraq that he believes will enable the U.S. to bring home its troops. He speaks in a Socratic style,
answering his own questions like the parttime law professor that he is.
McCarthy asks him about George W. Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence. Instead of the counterpunch she’s looking for, she gets a lengthy disquisition on constitutional law and the history of the commutation power that concludes with the declaration, “This president is incorrigible.” Not exactly a bumper sticker, but McCarthy cuts him slack. “I asked a complicated question and you need a complicated answer.”
Meanwhile, over in the southeastern corner of the state, Barack Obama is making his own spiderweb of visits with his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters. Like Clinton, he gets a celebrity reception. When he shows up at the Smokey Row coffee house in Oskaloosa, next to the bridal shop, the crowd, mostly white, flows over into an adjacent park. Obama has such a cult following that his staffers quiz the crowd on Obama trivia— where were his parents born (Kansas and Kenya); how did he meet his wife (she was his mentor at a law firm); the titles of his books. The crowd knows all the answers.
Michelle Obama looks preppy and a generation younger than the spouses of the other candidates, and testifies that, “There is something very special about Barack.” Obama calls his wife “smarter, tougher and better looking,” but “too smart to want to be president. She just wants to tell the president what to do.” What that says about Clinton is left unsaid. Obama has drawn crowds of 10,000 in Iowa City, 7,000 in the town of Ames, 40 km north of Des Moines. He hits many of the same themes as Clinton—health care, energy, education—but also takes veiled digs at the senator who voted to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq, calling the conflict there “a war that never should have been authorized and never should have been waged.” Where Clinton reminisced about the peace and prosperity of her husband’s years in office, Obama pitches himself as the candidate of the future. He draws cheers, but Susan Heslinger, 56, a teacher and Clinton supporter, is not convinced by his broad strokes. “He did well, but I want to know the details. What exactly are you going to do about health care?”
Iowa has 99 counties and it’s still very, very early. The summer before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt led the Democratic field. John Kerry was lagging in the polls, and his future running mate John Edwards was doing so poorly that pundits said he should pull out of the running to save face. Iowa changed all that. “The people in this state,” muses Dodd, “really don’t like outsiders telling them the race is over and here’s who your candidate is going to be.” And that’s what keeps the show on the road. M
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