Star power at Dems' annual Iowa event


INDIANOLA, Iowa -- The Iowa caucus may be three months away, but judging from the noise, it was Sunday.

The road to the Democratic presidential nomination, and perhaps the White House, wound Sunday afternoon through a muddy balloon field south of Des Moines. Every fall, the Harkin Steak Fry, an Iowa political tradition, brings together thousands of the party faithful, just the sort of diehards who will travel on a cold, snowy night to caucus.

The six major candidates and a record 12,000 showed up here for a kind of mini caucus under a bright prairie sun. They ate steak and potato salad, bashed the Bush administration and pumped up the Democratic cause, all the while building the re-election coffers of the host, Sen. Tom Harkin.

"This is my idea of a surge," a smiling Harkin told the record crowd.

The Steak Fry is political theater, a kind of live entertainment and a war of decibels, where the candidates buy blocks of $30 tickets and bus supporters from all over the state who will chant, hold signs and scream for their candidates. Hours before the candidates arrived, as steaks sizzled, the battle was joined. It started on the roads into town and, with few breaks, didn't end until late afternoon, when the candidates left.

Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign has taken Indianola by storm, with an almost unbroken line of "Hillary" signs that lined the last four or so miles of road. Sen. John Edwards' supporters stationed themselves at intersections. Sen. Barack Obama's rising sun symbols and the words "Hope" dawned over the field. The second-tier candidates -- Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- were barely represented.

Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, won the air war, hiring a plane to tow a banner. But battles are never won by air alone, and Clinton's groundlings massed on either side of the path in the two hours before the gates opened, chanting so loudly and so completely for the New York senator that the other candidates gave up.

"C'mon, you need to be louder," an older woman castigated a trio of quiet Richardson supporters gamely holding signs before the Clinton gauntlet.

"It won't make much of a difference," one replied, her voice almost drowned out.

Later, Obama raised the decibel level further, countering with a marching band and gymnastics troupe. His initial appearance, as he walked in the front gate, washed over the crowd and electrified even the Edwards and Clinton supporters waiting a half-mile away to greet their candidates.

"Obama's coming," said one, who pulled away from Edwards' group to meet the Illinois senator who tested the waters at last year's Steak Fry, a considerably smaller event. Clinton and Edwards were, despite Obama's appearance, similarly mobbed. Richardson's walk to the front stage, on the other hand, was barely interrupted as he cut through the volunteers handing out Clinton stickers and Obama signs.

Cathy Jorgensen of Adel, Iowa, sat on a blanket, waiting for the candidate speeches to begin. Jorgensen has been to all 30 Steak Frys and has seen them grow from the small events that she attended with her union-leader father to the spectacle that is today.

She allowed that this is the biggest, most boisterous she had ever seen but said that it's not all about the noise.

"Very few people get to hear from all of the candidates like this," Jorgensen said. "Where else do you get this opportunity? The people in Iowa don't always realize how lucky they are." Her beliefs were echoed by a dozen others.

But there were plenty of people who also came to pass out literature ranging from global warming to union rights. One T-shirt-wearing group, Drinking Liberally, bused 45 people from their national convention in Des Moines. Drinking Liberally is a social community that meets in bars and restaurants to talk liberal politics and have a cocktail. This year's convention was timed for Steak Fry.

"Everyone is talking about Iowa," said Amanda Mittlestadt, chairwoman of the Drinking Liberally convention. "Why not share in the celebrating?"

Around 3 p.m., the candidates were introduced by Harkin, one by one. Several, including Obama and Edwards, spoke passionately and bumped against their 15-minute time limit. Others, like Biden, barely raised their voices. The metaphor war went to Clinton, who overlooked the crowd and described a "field of dreams" that evoked the state's signature movie, and that pleased the Iowans.

"That's a wonderful line, isn't it?" an Obama supporter said wistfully.