Editor’s note: MSNBC.com national affairs writer Tom Curry has spent the last eight days criss-crossing Iowa reporting on the campaign for the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Here are his impressions of the campaign in its final 72 hours.
Saturday, 10 a.m., Cedar Rapids
On a drizzly, chilly morning, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt is about to show up at the United Auto Workers local in Cedar Rapids to fire up his labor union soldiers for the campaign's first test.
Ron Hunt, head of Teamsters local 238 in Cedar Rapids, tells me 30 of his members have been knocking on doors and working the phone bank to urge the 4,000 Teamsters in the Cedar Rapids area to show up Monday night for Gephardt.
“Gephardt is the only one who voted against NAFTA, we’re losing too many jobs,” Hunt says. “We’ve lost about 250 out of Square D, another 200 out of Oral B (the toothbrush maker) in Iowa City.”
Standing next to Hunt puffing a cigarette is David Elliott, a Teamster driver for UPS, who tells me, “We’re losing jobs on a daily basis and NAFTA is just going to get worse. They’re going to open the border to Mexico and just let these trucks flow and something’s got to be done about it.”
As for winning Monday’s caucuses, Elliott says Dean has a formidable organization. “I’m afraid Dean’s got a network set up that can’t be beat.”
I talk to Hasan Solomon, one of the many out-of-state union organizers who’ve come to Iowa to help Gephardt.
Solomon, a Washington staffer from the head office of the Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union, has been in Iowa for the past two weeks going door to door in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo contacting the 2,000 retired and 4,000 active members of his union.
“Gephardt has always been a friend to labor and working families and it's time for us to return that favor,” he says.
As Gephardt arrives, union members chant “Gephardt! Jobs! Gephardt! Jobs!”
Gephardt climbs atop the Ford pickup truck, followed by his wife, Jane, and daughter Chrissie.
he workers’ faces look grim as Gephardt tells them of meeting a man in North Dakota who told of job losses devastating that state’s towns. “He said when you lose jobs to unfair bad trade deals, you don’t just lose jobs, you lose churches, you lose homes, you lose families,” Gephardt said. “He said ‘we’re losing our way of life, we’re losing the culture and economy of these Midwestern states.’”
Shifting abruptly to a fighting tone, Gephardt shouts, “bring out every caucus-goer! We’re gonna win! Go door to door! Get everybody out!”
Gephardt winds up his speech, signs autographs, and hugs one of his precinct captains, Connie Clark, and then hugs her again.
It is poignant — if Gephardt loses the caucuses, this could be the second-to-last day of his long political career — yet Gephardt shows no emotion.
Saturday, 12:15 p.m., Clinton
At Gephardt’s next scheduled event in Clinton, his plane can’t land due to heavy fog.
Pinch-hitting for Gephardt is Rep. Jerry Costello, a sad-faced House member from Illinois who resembles comedian Bob Newhart.
One might think most of the crowd would simply leave once it was announced Gephardt would not make it, but this is Iowa where people are too polite and too serious about politics to go home.
“If Bush is re-elected, you can kiss manufacturing good-bye in the United States,” Costello tells them.
Kathi Krambeck, who works in a hearing aid center in Davenport and her husband, Ken, an engineer at the Rock Island Arsenal, tell me they’ll support Gephardt. Kathi’s reason: “his ethics. We need a man that will stand up for the truth.”
As for Dean, she says, “I cannot understand for the life of me why people are supporting that man. What is the big deal about Howard Dean?”
“He has not shown a lot of compassion,” Ken says. “I have a commonality with Dick Gephardt and his background I’m a working individual from the Midwest who was lucky to get through school on student loans and I can relate to that a lot better than I can relate to Howard Dean.”
Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Dubuque
As some 500 Democrats from eastern Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin wait to hear North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, local Democrat John Goodman tells me he’s backing Edwards.
Goodman says once the results are tallied on Monday night, “I think it’s going to be a dead heat between Dean, Kerry and Edwards.”
As for Dean, Goodman says, “I don’t think he seems terribly sensitive, he doesn’t express himself in a very sympathetic way. It seems like he’ll say just about anything whatever suits the situation. ... For him to call himself an antiwar candidate is really disingenuous.”
When I run into Rob Tully, former chairman of Iowa Democratic Parity, who is now co-chairman of the Edwards campaign, I suggest the possibility that Edwards could come in first on Monday night.
“That’s kind of like saying out loud that the Cubs are going to win the World Series,” Tully cautions. “You never want to jinx anything.”
He adds, “We have a real shot at third place, which is more than what people expected for John Edwards.”
Edwards delivers his speech, a populist mix of anti-lobbyist and anti-“Washington insider” rhetoric. But Edwards is not at the top of his game, compared to what I saw when I traveled with him Monday to events in Sioux City and Storm Lake.
Outshining Edwards in delivering a crowd-pleasing speech is Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who gets clamorous cheers and applause when he declares, “It was absolutely wrong to go into Iraq and it is wrong to stay!”
Kucinich is followed by Dean’s surrogate speaker, Dubuque high school student Christine Heckmann, who is 18 and will take part in her first precinct caucus on Monday.
Previewing her speech, she tells me, “I’m talking about why it is important to get him on the ticket to our voting segment and our age group. Howard Dean is pulling so many of the non-voters in.”
“There’s no single issue that outshines any other for me. Obviously the war in Iraq is big on this ballot. I personally am concerned with women's rights and pro-choice and Planned Parenthood,” she adds
As Kucinich leaves the hall, I ask him “How do you keep your energy up going through this ordeal?”
“I make of every moment a meditation and so I’m always in a space where I’m communicating from a place of effortlessness,” he explains. “I don’t feel as though I’m expending energy there because that’s the space I’m always in.” When I ask if he draws energy from the crowds that come to hear him, he says, “I draw upon the energy that’s everywhere, that’s how I live.”
A local television reporter asks Kucinich why so many college students are supporting him.
“Because I maintain in my heart the rebellious spirit of youth. They’re looking for authenticity and they’re looking for fearlessness.”
Sunday, Jan. 18, 1:45 p.m., Waterloo
His hair is white, his face is puffy and red, but his voice still has that stirring resonance that sets Democrats’ pulses racing and brings them to their feet.
No, it isn’t John Kerry, it is Ted Kennedy here at the McKinstry Elementary School in a blue-collar neighborhood in Waterloo, Iowa.
Kennedy ignites the crowd of 600 Democrats, praising Kerry’s “steadfastness, tough-mindedness, determination, follow-through.” The crowd whoops and cheers and waits patiently for Kennedy’s autograph after the rally.
I think to myself that if Kennedy can transfer this exhilaration to Kerry, he just might win the Iowa caucuses.
I haven’t seen this pumped-up a crowd since I saw Howard Dean speak to California Democratic convention three days before the Iraq war started.
Sunday, 10:30pm, Des Moines
In the ballroom of the Savery Hotel in Des Moines, I watch Ted Kennedy’s son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, as he stands on a platform with Dick Gephardt in front of a boozy, excited crowd of 600 supporters.
For the Missouri congressman, this might be the eve of a magnificent victory or the eve of his career-ending defeat.
Gephardt thanks Kennedy for supporting him, telling the crowd of 600 people, “I deeply appreciate his friendship.”
And he pays homage to the labor union chieftains arrayed on stage with him, saying, “I am one of them and they are part of us.”
I’ve never seen Gephardt show much emotion or sentimentality but tonight he gives all of us a little glimmer: “I’ve tried to shut my eyes and reflect on what we’ve done through the years,” he says, referring to all the campaigns that he and his wife Jane have done since Gephardt was city alderman in St. Louis back in the 1960s.
Recalling his blue-collar roots, Gephardt tells the crowd that he knows what it’s like to have an aging parent who doesn’t have a pension. “That’s where we come from, that’s what we know,” he says.
Then someone in the crowd shouts, “We love you, Dick!”
“And I love you,” he answers.