In Iowa, politics is personal
Campaigns don't play out on TVIn the back room of a smoky sports bar called Benchwarmers, Chris Dodd stood before 40 Democrats who came out on a rainy Saturday night to hear why he wants to become president.
Dodd, a senator from Connecticut for two decades and former general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, didn't flinch when a member of the Ankeny Area Democrats introduced him as "another candidate running for president." In the months and, often, years before the quadrennial Iowa caucus, it's taken for granted that you're just another presidential candidate until you place first or second on Caucus Night.
There are rock stars of this caucus season.
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani rarely go anywhere without an entourage and crowds following them. But most of the others, more than a dozen, go to such early voting states as Iowa and New Hampshire several times a month and criss-cross them. No event is too small, not even a living room social.
Iowa, more so than probably any other state, demands that candidates have more intimate relationships with prospective voters. The Hawkeye State can make or break a candidacy, as it did with Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004 or as far back as 1976, when it pushed to the forefront a peanut farmer from Georgia named Jimmy Carter.
The campaigns throw lots of time and effort into Iowa, believing that a win here is worth its weight in fundraising power that will carry the candidate into New Hampshire and, if he (or she) is lucky, to the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries and eventually the nomination.
Some candidates, like Fred Thompson, are relative newcomers who have yet to build a strong grass-roots organization here. Others, like John Edwards, never really left after 2004. Still others, like Dodd, have had to build from scratch. The key is to reach enough committed supporters who will venture out on a cold January night and spend at least three hours of their lives to help you win Iowa.
"This whole campaign comes down to one place: Iowa," said Tammy Haddad, vp Washington news at MSNBC. "You've got to have either Iowa or New Hampshire. If you don't win in either Iowa or New Hampshire, you're not going to go on."
It isn't easy, and it isn't cheap. Most of the rest of the campaign will be played out on television and in front of big crowds and national-media photo ops. But that sort of thing doesn't play well in Iowa.
And front-runners notoriously are laid low in Iowa: Just ask then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who lost the 1988 Iowa caucus after having won it in 1980.
In a three-day stretch over this past weekend, each of the major candidates spent at least one day in Iowa amid the heavy end-of-the-quarter fundraising flurry.
Mitt Romney tailgated at the Iowa-Iowa State football game, probably the biggest crowd all year. Biden, a day before the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, traveled the remote northwest corner of the state near Sioux Falls. Dodd took in the football game, met with some firefighters who have endorsed him, then drove to Ankeny.
"They're actually out among the people," said Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News. "They're going to county fairs, they're going to the Chamber of Commerce, visiting restaurants and doughnut shops. It's the way politics used to be. So much has been taken out of the community and put on television."
In this respect, the candidates aren't the only stars in this peculiarly interactive political theater. Regular Iowa voters — many of whom are ordinary folks as well as activists — often demand and receive top billing. Rare is an Iowan who hasn't encountered at least one candidate during each election cycle, whether or not they were looking for one. With the exception of New Hampshire, no other state's residents get as good a sense of the candidates, and as many opportunities to interface with them.
"Iowans get to experience the candidates. New Yorkers and Californians don't get that kind of exposure," said Robert Tucker, a Des Moines lawyer. "They don't get to shake hands with and talk to Chris Dodd. We're a little spoiled, I guess, but we take the process seriously."
And they do it knowing full well they're under the glare of national — and sometimes international — attention. Sunday's Harkin Steak Fry, the old-time rally in a field near Des Moines, drew not only all six major Democratic candidates but also journalists from the networks and newspapers and from as far away as Germany and Japan.
Woody and Julia Brenton laugh when they're asked about the media attention. Woody Brenton, a chartered financial analyst from Des Moines, said he's already been interviewed by the Guardian of London this year. Julia Brenton said everybody she knows has been interviewed. It's the way things are in Iowa before caucus.
"If there are Iowans who haven't been interviewed by the press, it's only because they don't want to be interviewed," Brenton said.
For lack of a better word, it comes down to character.
"In the end, the Iowans who are caucusing really want to believe you are ready to be president," said Carlos Watson, a New York-based political analyst and former campaign staffer.
So when Dodd told the group assembled at Benchwarmers that they're going to have a big role in shaping the presidential campaign, he wasn't just talking about his future. He was paying homage to the fact that it's one of the last times where the presidential campaigns will be personal. After Iowa and New Hampshire, it's a battle waged mostly on the smallscreen.
On this night, the Connecticut senator may not have changed any minds. The Ankeny Area Democrats, a minority in this strongly Republican suburb of Des Moines, already have heard from Edwards, Biden and Bill Richardson. Dodd, who doesn't have the big money of Obama or Clinton and flew to Des Moines earlier that day on a regional jet four rows from the back, settled on a version of his stump speech then took a half-hour of questions. Some of them were straight out of a briefing book — Iraq and health care and how to keep jobs from flowing out of the U.S. One came out of left field, a man asking Dodd to commit to releasing all of the classified documents from the Kennedy assassination if he becomes president.
It's all par for the course in Iowa.
"On the caucus trail, they are doing question-and-answer with 20-30 people who are going to, yes, ask them about the war and health care but also ask them about things that they haven't thought about, like the ratio of oil to biofuels or do they think that Barry Bonds should have an asterisk behind his name," said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communications at the University of Iowa. "You can see the staffers scribbling furiously because they haven't thought of that question before."
Even a bit player will get his money's worth in Iowa and New Hampshire these next few weeks. Most of the candidates won't last beyond Feb. 5, but they — and Iowans — are making the most of the time they've got.