In the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, a win in the first contest here in Iowa on Jan. 19 could propel a candidate to victory the following week in the New Hampshire primary and perhaps on to the nomination. Iowa Democrats are demanding, and some might say spoiled. In cities such as Des Moines and smaller places like Mason City, rank-and-file Democrats get to interrogate the presidential contenders face to face at least once, sometimes two or three times.
Iowans take their job seriously, knowing that they can do what voters in California, Tennessee or New York cannot: look a would-be president in the eye and judge if he or she seems worthy of the office.
This Friday in Oskaloosa, Iowa, for example, local Democrats can walk up to Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and quiz him about trade with China or the viability of Social Security.
The same one-on-one interviews of the contenders take place almost every day across Iowa.
FAR FROM SETTLED
Although former Vermont governor Howard Dean leads Gephardt as the frontrunner in the latest Iowa opinion poll, political veterans here say many of the state’s Democrats are far from having settled on a candidate.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards or Florida Sen. Bob Graham could grow as threats to Dean and Gephardt.
Dean has made himself the favorite in Iowa, by the force of his personality and by the amount of time he has lavished on the state — spending 62 days here so far, more than any of his rivals.
“That’s why the early polls show Dean doing well — because people know who is and they’ve heard him,” said Rob Tully, the former head of the Iowa Democratic Party and co-chairman of the Edwards campaign in the state.
Tully added that 75 percent of those polled in the summer change their minds by the time the caucuses take place in January.
“I think that’s absolutely true,” said David Barnhart, the western Iowa regional director for Kerry’s campaign. “Most everyone we talked to is very undecided. And the people that have decided, it’s soft support.”
A contender can’t close the sale merely by running television ads on the 6 p.m. news, although Edwards is now doing that in the Des Moines media market.
PERSUASION IN CAUCUS
On caucus night, the ideal would be for a contender to have a stalwart advocate in most of the 1,994 precinct caucus locations around the state. The way the caucus system works, open discussion precedes the voting for a candidate. Unlike a primary election, a caucus is a neighborly exercise in democracy.
Your grocery check-out woman or your town librarian might the person in your precinct caucus appealing to you to support Gephardt or Kerry. A Dean supporter might walk into her precinct caucus in Mason City, Iowa, and be persuaded by a powerful speech by the Kerry leader in that precinct to vote for Kerry.
In each precinct caucus, a candidate needs to have support from at least 15 percent of the attendees to remain “viable” and to get any delegates. If a particular contender has only 10 percent of the attendees in a given precinct, for example, those people will likely switch allegiance to another contender.
What may well decide the outcome is “the ground game,” the quality of the grass-roots organizers working for each contender throughout the state. A skilled field organizer will make contact with activist Democrats in his or her territory and persuade them to sign up for his candidate.
“If you’ve got a good staff person who works well with the community, that could make a huge difference,” said state Sen. Amanda Ragan of Mason City, which is in Cerro Gordo County in northern Iowa.
“The campaigns are literally trying to find two or three people that are going to be key to their caucus efforts,” said Tim Lapointe, the Democratic county chairman in Cerro Gordo County. “Those key people could make the difference not only in who wins the Iowa caucuses, but who gets the nomination for president. It’s going to come down to those few people who are going to stand up for a candidate.”
On the night of Jan. 19, “I think we’re going to have a situation where there are probably several candidates in the race who are not viable,” Lapointe said. “To pull over those few people (from a non-viable candidate) to another candidate and get one more delegate out of a certain precinct in Cerro Gordo County could mean the difference in the Iowa caucuses.”
Lapointe, who said he’s leaning toward supporting Dean, said the former Vermont governor was the first to field an organizer in Mason City. Dean supported Ragan when she won her election to the state legislature last year. “Dean had his foot in the door here before the rest of them,” said Lapointe. “He’s got a lot of staff from the John Norris (2002 congressional) campaign who worked very hard here in north Iowa and they made themselves available to us and we got to know those folks.”
Gephardt has field operatives in Waterloo, about 85 miles away, and will likely bring at least one to Mason City. Kerry and Edwards both have operatives in Mason City, as does Florida Sen. Bob Graham.
Kerry has nine field offices across Iowa with a mix of paid and volunteer staff and “we’re bringing on a lot of new hires in September,” said Barnhart. Rival campaigns are reticent to say how many field organizers they have in Iowa, for fear of tipping off the opposition to their strategy.
“Graham has come out of nowhere and is really coming on strong here in northern Iowa,” Lapointe reported from his vantage point in Mason City.
He added that, “Gephardt won the Iowa caucus in 1988, has a lot of union support and has national name recognition. That makes him electable.”
But, he said, “for some reason, I get the sense that there’s not a huge groundswell of support for Gephardt and I’m not sure why.”
GEPHARDT COUNTS ON UNIONS
To help build that groundswell, Gephardt is counting on organized labor. On Saturday, Gephardt and Teamster President James Hoffa rallied 200 Teamster members at a sun-baked parking lot behind a Teamsters local office in Des Moines.
“This is the guy that’s going to stop the hemorrhaging” of manufacturing jobs to China, Mexico and other low-wage venues, Hoffa said.
Gephardt, Hoffa told the crowd, was “born in a Teamster home, as many of you were. What better candidate can you have than that?” In fact, he said, “This is the best candidate we’ve had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Gephardt, who has turned to more evangelistic rhetoric in recent weeks, had tears in his eyes and his voice cracked with emotion as he told the crowd, “How proud my dad would be to see me here today, getting the endorsement of his union that fought for him! I will be a president every day in that Oval Office for people like you and people like my parents.”
The Teamsters have nearly 12,000 active and retired members in Iowa. Hoffa is urging them not only to show up to back Gephardt on caucus night but give money to his campaign. In a first for the union, its leadership is asking the two million active and retired Teamsters across the country to write a check to the Gephardt campaign.
If even 10 percent of them gave Gephardt $20, that would be $4 million, which is more than Gephardt was able to raise in the second quarter of this year.
But the biggest prize in the ranks of organized labor in Iowa is the backing of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which has about 20,000 members in the state.
AFSCME’s national leadership will meet Sept. 10 to decide whether and whom to endorse. It will be a very big day for the contenders.