By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/22/2006 11:16:13 AM ET 2006-05-22T15:16:13

This is the first of an occasional "On the Road" series with possible presidential candidates.

With the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination well under way here, Evan Bayh showed off the assets that seem to be making him a top-rank competitor for Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses 18 months from now.

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During a campaign swing across the state this past weekend, the Indiana senator's mellow demeanor, folksy Midwestern charm and credentials as a governor and U.S. senator gave Bayh threshold credibility with most of the rank-and-file Democrats he met.

But Bayh has something else that’s not an asset, something that gives a reporter a distinct sense of déjà vu: his vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002.

As voters in Osceola and Sioux City challenged him on his support for the Iraq war, it felt like the fall of 2003 in these same Iowa meeting halls and living rooms where voters confronted another mellow Midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, on the very same issue as he sought the Democratic nomination.

In meeting room and living room: Iraq
In a room at a community college in Osceola where a dozen people had gathered to meet the senator, Carole Waterman told Bayh that her son, a Virginia National Guardsman, had returned from a stint in Iraq. She didn’t want him or anybody else's son to be sent there.

“How are we going to get ourselves out of this morass? Killing our troops, killing the Iraqis, breaking our budget… It makes no sense to me at all,” Waterman told Bayh. “I’m wondering how you feel about that.”

Bayh replied with a long and subdued justification of his vote for the 2002 use-of-force resolution, along with an explanation that he has learned from his secret briefings as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that if U.S. troops withdrew, a civil war and perhaps a regional war would erupt, with Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia plunging in.

“That would be bad for us,” he told Waterman.

She wasn’t buying Bayh’s justification.

With exasperation in her voice, she said, “I wanted him to say to say we were leaving Iraq tomorrow. At this point, I don’t care if there is a civil war in Iraq, because there already is a civil war.”

The Democrats who show up for these early events are among the state's most politically active.

At a living room event in Sioux City on Saturday night, former Woodbury County chairman Al Sturgeon told Bayh that rank-and-file Democrats still feel “outrage over this incredible debacle in Iraq.”

Calling it “the biggest political and military blunder of my lifetime,” Sturgeon said to Bayh, “I’d like you to explain your vote on the war and why you gave the president a blank check to get us into this disaster.”

Bayh calmly answered that “I wouldn’t cast the same vote today as I did then.” He noted that “the French believed that (there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), the Germans believed that, the Russians believed that, everybody believed he [Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction.”

Bayh said if the Iraqi factions “get their political act together — and we will know this in the next six to eight weeks… if they can form a government… then there’s something to work with there.” If not, then “we’re out.”

Does honest and candid win respect?
Afterward Sturgeon said, “It was an honest answer and I did appreciate the candidness. It’s not a good answer, because there aren’t any good answers.”

He added that although he didn’t know much about potential 2008 contender Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., “I respect anybody who voted against that war, because it was the right vote and it was a tough vote to take.”

Sturgeon indicated that Bayh’s frequent mentioning of his membership on the Intelligence Committee may not be particularly helpful with anti-war voters. “The intelligence was always suspect. You didn’t have to be a member of the Intelligence Committee – all you had to be was an informed citizen to know this intelligence was pretty suspect.”

Ostensibly Bayh was in Iowa to be the guest star at fund-raising events for candidates for the state legislature. But he was doing the early cultivation of Democrats that must be done if a contender is to make a strong showing in Iowa’s caucuses, the opening event of the presidential nomination process.

Bayh’s pitch to Iowans was simple and remarkably non-ideological: he has proven five times that he can win in a “red” state – as he demonstrated in 2004, when he won a second term in the Senate.

Arguably he can do the same in some of the other 25 or so states that Democratic presidential nominees Mike Dukakis in 1988, Al Gore in 2000, and John Kerry in 2004 gave up without a fight.

“On the same day the people of my state were voting for George Bush by 21 percent, I’m pleased to tell you they supported my re-election by 24 percent,” Bayh told a crowd Friday night at a United Steel Workers union hall in Des Moines.

“Beating Republicans – even in one of the toughest states in the Union, this is something that I know how to do.”

“I think he’s for real, I like him,’ said Daryl Beall, state senator from Fort Dodge in northwest Iowa.

Also impressed after hearing Bayh Friday night was former state party chairman Gordon Fischer who said Bayh “had a lot of humor, which he hadn’t had previously. He seemed a lot looser, had a lot more energy and passion. I really like how he pivoted from ‘we can bash Bush, but we need to talk about positive solutions. I thought that was cleverly done.”

At each stop Saturday, Bayh passed out a $250 check to each candidate for state legislature and showed Democrats a color-coded map of how he won Indiana in 2004 even as Bush was carrying the state.

“My point simply is this: winning New York or California by more isn’t going to get us where we need to go, it’s winning Iowa” and other Bush states, he told Democrats assembled in the living room of state Rep. Paul Shomshor in Council Bluffs.

On that point he’s irrefutable. Kerry won New York by 1.3 million votes – a nearly 60,000-vote increase over Al Gore’s performance four years earlier. And of course it did Kerry no good at all.

He could have used some of those 60,000 votes in Iowa, which he by lost 10,000 votes.

Not addressed in the weekend meetings: while Bayh has proven Midwestern appeal, his voting record in the past two years has been remarkably similar to that of a 2008 contender whom some Iowa Democrats say would be unappealing in their part of the country, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Shomshor seemed persuaded that Bayh could expand the Democrats’ Electoral College map. “Gosh, if he’s the nominee he wins Indiana probably and he flips Ohio – that makes the map pretty appealing. I think you would have to say he’d win those two states if he were at the top of the ticket.”

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