As they mull over their choices in the final days before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, some rank-and-file Iowa Democrats are seeking electability, others are moved by a candidate’s inspirational life story. Some are taken by a particular candidate’s charisma, others are focused on where each candidate stands on the Iraq war.
In interviews with voters in all parts of the state, MSNBC.com found many Iowa Democrats struggling to choose among four top-tier contenders, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and one maverick long-shot, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Rev. John Bates, a Presbyterian pastor from Rudd, Iowa in the north central part of the state, who showed up in Charles City, Iowa to hear Gephardt, has shifted the frame of reference for his candidate search.
“I began the caucus season thinking that the Democrats needed a fresh face, somebody that hasn’t been around, like Congressman Gephardt has. But I’m beginning to conclude maybe the Democrats need somebody who is experienced, has been around Washington and knows the ins and outs,” Bates said.
“Gephardt seems very knowledgeable,” but he adds “I like Dean because he seemed to come across as straight shooting. It gets him into trouble occasionally, but I can accept that, if he tells me what he thinks.”
It’s not that Bates always agrees with Dean on all issues. “I’m not fond of his views on gun control, but at beginning of the campaign I think he was telling us what he was thinking. Iraq is what got my attention with Dean.”
Bates has narrowed his finalists to Dean, Gephardt and Edwards. Even if he does not ultimately support Dean, Bates tips his hat to the former Vermont governor’s audacity.
“I remember reading articles over a year ago: ‘Howard Dean is campaigning in Iowa.’ I remember thinking, ‘who does he think he is? A governor from Vermont, he doesn’t have chance at all.’ You have to admire the way he has put together a campaign.”
Gephardt ‘too compliant’
Dean is also a favorite of former teacher, union organizer, and real estate broker Dennis Barnum who cheered Dean at a pancake breakfast in Fort Dodge Thursday.
Barnum once lived in Missouri and helped Gephardt win his House seat in 1976 by organizing teachers for the campaign. But now he said, “Gephardt is a little bit too compliant, maybe in the name of being a Washington politician and getting things done or at least making the effort. But for all these years, there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress on all the things we’re talking about in this campaign What do you have to show for it other than ‘I stood up to them (the Republicans)’ or ‘I was fighting this or that.’ Howard Dean as governor of Vermont has produced. Ten years of balanced budgets.”
Another Democrat at the Fort Dodge Dean breakfast, William Doan, was a classmate of Gephardt’s at Northwestern University, class of 1962.
“Dick Gephardt was there in a full scholarship,” Doan recalled. ”He was a poor Democrat at a very rich kids’ Republican school. Dick became student body president his senior year, that tells you what kind of politician he was even then.”
Doan said “the war issue was pivotal for me” in persuading him to back Dean. “Dick was wrong about it, and his judgment actually hurt the party,” Doan said.
“Dean is very electable,” Doan said. “He has a background not dissimilar from George Bush. There’s a reason why people like that do very well in politics: Rockefeller, the Bushes, Franklin Roosevelt. There’s a level of self-confidence there that only that kind of (financial) security can give you. There’s something about those people that gives them a sense of self-worth… some people would call it arrogance or worse. But the fact of the matter is, it’s useful in politics.”
Dean grates on the nerves of some Iowa voters, too. Donna Hoffman, a former elementary school teacher from Cedar Falls, said Dean is “too cocky. He comes on just like the little smiling kid in third grade, a know-it-all,” Hoffman scoffed, acting out her impression of a swaggering boy strutting his stuff by thrusting her shoulders back and forth.
Dean, she added, “didn’t go in the (military) service.” She laughed as she said, “He had a back injury, but he went skiing.”
Gephardt, Hoffman said, “moves slowly in making his decisions, which I like. I think he would stand up for what he believes.”
She also praised Kerry: “he has been in the military, he has fought, he knows what it is like, and he’d think twice before he put us into war again.”
While Hoffman said she believes the Iraq war “was the right thing to do, I feel bad we lost a lot of American boys. It is a high price to pay.”
Kucinich, who is the most outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, has a loyal Iowa following.
Sandra Nett, a psychologist from Des Moines, is a committed to caucusing for Kucinich.
Kucinich compared to Kennedy
“I have not seen that kind of energy since Bobby Kennedy,” Nett told MSNBC.com as she ate her breakfast at the Waveland Café in Des Moines. “He speaks to an inclusive kind of caring about the direction of the lives of all people,” she said.
“He grew up very poor and as the oldest of several very poor children, so he has a sense of being responsible for the care of others,” Nett said.
Under the party’s rules for the caucuses, a candidate must have support from 15 percent of the caucus attendees in a precinct in order to win any delegates from that precinct. If Kucinich failed to reach the 15 percent threshold in her precinct, Nett said she would try to collect enough fellow caucus attendees to back an uncommitted slate of delegates.
Nett said she would not shift to Dean, who has also run as an opponent of the Iraq war.
“I know I wouldn’t go to Howard Dean as alternative; I don’t think his vision is good,” she said.
Fred Briese, who at age 80 is still farming 240 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa near Correctionville, Iowa, came to hear North Sen. John Edwards in Sioux City this week, said he was undecided between Kerry and Edwards.
“I’ve been for Kerry all along, that’s why I wanted to hear Edwards. I may change my mind on it. I’m taking a serious look at this guy (Edwards).”
Briese’s reasoning provides an example of the unorthodox routes that Iowa voters sometimes take to reach their conclusions.
“Kerry has Kennedy people behind him and he’s got the best chance of beating George Bush. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger would never have been elected governor of California if he weren’t married to a Kennedy – so the Kennedys carry voting power,” he explained. “Don’t think they don’t.”
Briese has a suspicion of what the national news media could do to a Democratic candidate who doesn’t have the Kennedy talisman to protect himself.
“The newspapers and NBC and the whole works are controlled by Republicans,” he said. “If you elect Dean or Gephardt, either one, they can’t beat George Bush.”