On Saturday, November 10, there was no mistaking the center of the political universe. It was Veterans Memorial Hall in Des Moines, where the Democratic presidential field joined the 9,000 energetic partisans gathered for the Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner.
This was no ordinary rubber-chicken-circuit event. It attracted every important Democratic politician in Iowa, not to mention House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and was preceded by tailgate-style rallies and boisterous marches through the streets of the state capital.
The spectacle surely would have overshadowed any Republican campaign events in Iowa that day, except that there weren't any. None of the Republican candidates, it turns out, was anywhere near Iowa. Instead, they were scattered across the country. Former New York City Mayor was fundraising in Colorado. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was doing the same in Philadelphia. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. , and former Arkansas Gov. were crisscrossing New Hampshire. The others weren't on the campaign trail at all.
With less than two months to go before Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, it might seem odd that not a single Republican presidential contender was pressing the flesh in Iowa that day. But their absence was in keeping with the widely divergent paths the two parties' 2008 nomination fights have followed in Iowa.
For Democrats, the run-up to the January 3 Iowa caucuses is generating full-throttle, leave-no-county-behind campaigns within the Hawkeye State, where polls indicate that Sen. of New York, former Sen. of North Carolina, and Sen. of Illinois are locked in a tight race.
Republicans, on the other hand, have taken a far more ambivalent approach, one that reflects a reality that none of the campaigns will acknowledge openly: Iowa simply isn't expected to matter that much in the 2008 Republican nomination calculus. That's partly because Romney built up such a head of steam in the state that as early as last August several key rivals decided to make their stands elsewhere. And it's partly because of doubts that Romney can translate his popularity in Iowa into strength elsewhere.
The differences between the Democratic and Republican approaches to Iowa are striking. Combined, the six Democratic campaigns that are active in the state have more than 500 paid staffers; Republicans have fewer than 100. Even the smallest Democratic campaigns have more than a dozen field offices scattered across the state in such key places as Davenport and Iowa City; Republicans generally rely on volunteers and staffers dispatched from headquarters in Des Moines.
The Republican caucuses operate under slightly different rules -- the GOP process is essentially a straw poll, which means that Republican candidates don't face the same precinct-by-precinct organizing and volunteer recruiting imperatives that confront Democrats. But even so, the Democratic candidates themselves have spent more time on the ground in Iowa: According to figures compiled by The Hotline, Democratic candidates made 185 visits to Iowa through November 14. Over the same period, Republicans registered 137 visits.
On the Democratic side, the Edwards campaign recently trumpeted what it called a "critical milestone." The candidate had visited and held campaign events in all 99 counties. On the Republican side, by contrast, former Sen. of Tennessee had made just four visits to the state through early November.
Thompson isn't the only Republican giving Iowa short shrift. McCain and Giuliani skipped Iowa's signature Republican pre-caucus event, the Ames Straw Poll in August. What's more, McCain, Giuliani, and Romney all missed the Ronald Reagan Day fundraising dinner in October. No serious Democratic candidate would have dared to miss the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
The explanation behind this disparity of effort is straightforward. Democrats have every reason to think that Iowa will play something close to a king-making (or queen-making) role. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vice President Al Gore, the party's most recent presidential nominees, locked up their races by winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. This year, with a clear national front-runner in Clinton, the outcome could follow this familiar script. The widespread consensus is that Clinton's momentum will be unstoppable if she wins the first two states handily.
The Republican field is also taking its cue from recent history. In the party's two most recent competitive presidential contests, the eventual nominees (Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000) won Iowa but went on to lose New Hampshire.
"If Hillary Clinton can deliver a pretty good victory against Obama and Edwards and the others, she takes a tremendous lead because she only gets stronger down the road," predicts Steve Roberts, a Republican National Committee member and a former Iowa state party chairman. "By contrast, on the Republican side, while Mitt Romney is way ahead here, [Republicans] don't see it as a foregone conclusion that it will translate into wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina."
There's no question that Romney's Iowa campaign and his lead in state polls have influenced Republican thinking. He has spent more time in Iowa than anyone else in his party, and his campaign was organizing the state and filling the air with ads long before most of his colleagues' campaigns -- no small matter in a caucus state. And unlike McCain, whose stands on illegal immigration and ethanol cause him problems in Iowa, or Giuliani, whose positions on social issues present challenges, Romney is not weighed down by any deal-breaking views.
"Clearly, you've got the dominance of one candidate, Mitt Romney, who spent a lot of money and built a base of support. And you've got a socially conservative audience that makes it difficult for a candidate like Rudy Giuliani," says Terry Nelson, a native Iowan who served as political director for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign and who worked briefly for the 2008 McCain campaign. "All of these things have combined to make it a little less of a contest than it normally is."
Furthermore, the accelerated and front-loaded 2008 primary schedule has reshaped the landscape in ways that could well diminish Iowa's importance. With South Carolina's Republican primary slated for January 19, Florida's for January 29, and a bushel of major contests scheduled for February 5, there is now a potential route to the nomination that bypasses Iowa altogether.
The Thompson strategy, for example, is predicated on a strong showing in South Carolina and then doing well across much of the rest of the South on February 5. The Giuliani campaign also envisions a scenario in which Iowa plays only a minor role. In a conference call last Monday, Giuliani strategists played down Iowa's importance, noting that no actual delegates are awarded on caucus day, because results are not binding on the elected delegates. Their plan hinges on Florida and the large, urbanized, delegate-rich states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, that will vote on February 5 -- the kinds of places where Giuliani's message resonates more than in Iowa.
"Obviously, Iowa is extraordinarily important for momentum. And we know that," said Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime. "But Iowa awards no delegates."