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Monday, January 29, 2007

In Iowa, rock star candidates still have to campaign one voter at a time

In Iowa, rock star candidates still have to campaign one voter at a time
By CHARLOTTE EBY, Courier Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES --- With a spate of superstar candidates such as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama converging on Iowa for the presidential caucuses, political observers here wonder whether the caucus tradition of retail politics --- wooing voters in coffee shops and living rooms --- will be a thing of the past.
But longtime Iowa pols have cautionary tales for candidates who think they can wage their campaigns on television screens instead of in town squares.
"The history of the Iowa caucuses --- on both sides of the aisle --- is strewn with the carcasses of celebrity candidates who didn't understand that you had to come in and meet with people, interact with them, answer their questions," said Larry Murphy, a lobbyist and former Democratic state lawmaker from Oelwein.
Iowa activists point to three infamous flame-outs to make their case: Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Howard Dean in 2004 on the Democratic side. For the GOP, it was the loss of George Bush Sr. in the 1988 Iowa caucuses to Bob Dole while Bush was vice president.
Murphy believes the 2008 race is wide open, even with the celebrity status some of the candidates enjoy. He has a warning for candidates who think they can conduct a "runway to runway" campaign in the state.
"You can hire all the operatives you want, you can hire all the staff you want, but it's really that interaction between small groups of people and the candidates that really give the caucuses their flavor," Murphy said.
Iowa House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, believes Iowa plays an important role in vetting the candidates that only a small state can. Iowans want to look the candidates in the eye and ask the hard questions they may not be ready to answer, he said.
"The voters get to set the agenda in the caucuses, not the candidates. And that's really what happens," Rants said.
Cedar Falls Democrat Dave Nagle, a former congressman and ex-state party chairman, said Clinton's challenge will be connecting with people one on one through a series of unscripted moments.
"One of the problems that Sen. Clinton is going to have is trying to get out from behind the ropes and be a candidate that people can relate to in a personal way, which is required in Iowa," Nagle said.
He believes Clinton is up to the challenge. He points to Democrat Al Gore's "regular guy" caucus campaign in 2000, even while he was a sitting vice president.
The other challenge Nagle sees for Clinton is transforming her campaign to one of inclusion rather than exclusion. He criticized the private dinner she recently held for key Iowa activists willing to travel to Washington, D.C., saying it is not the way caucus campaigns are conducted in Iowa.
"You don't invite people to participate --- you beg them to join," Nagle said.
The Iowa caucuses can present pitfalls for candidates unschooled in their ways.
Nagle cites George Bush Sr.'s loss in the 1988 GOP caucuses, after Bush ran what he called an "imperial campaign."
Mike Mahaffey, a former GOP state party chairman, said Bob Dole showed by beating Bush 1988 that he was a skilled retail campaigner.
"It put George Bush in a tough position," Mahaffey said.
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Ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is among the 2008 caucus contenders, does not predict the role of retail politics will diminish with Clinton and Obama in the race.
"If they want to do well in Iowa, if they want to do well in New Hampshire, and if they want to do well in the states that start this process, they have to spend time in living rooms, they have to spend time in church basements, they have to spend time in small gatherings," Vilsack said.
Al Sturgeon, a Sioux City lawyer and Democrat, said former Sen. John Edwards has spent the months since his last presidential run doing just that in Iowa.
Sturgeon, who has signed on to support Edwards, argues the former senator has a head start on the caucus race by quietly staying in touch with influential activists he met when he ran in 2004.
"Obama's talking about it. Hillary's talking about it. Edwards is doing it, and he's been doing it," Sturgeon said.
That type of effort can ultimately mean more on caucus night than drawing large crowds.
Nagle remembers "humongous" crowds who came to see Sen. Edward Kennedy when he ran against then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
"They stole over to the town square to see the guy, but they weren't there to support him. They were there to look at him," Nagle said.
One the flip side, Carter, low in the polls that year, courted Iowa voters he had met in the 1976 caucuses. Carter called thousands of Iowans individually to successfully stave off the challenge from Kennedy, Murphy remembers.
"That's what the retail politics buys you," Murphy said.
Large crowds for Democrat Howard Dean in the closing days of the 2004 Iowa caucus campaign didn’t translate into a win. Dean ended up finishing third behind John Kerry and Edwards.
Dean also stumbled after leading in the polls, Murphy said, because he failed to recruit supporters who understood the caucus process. Kerry and Edwards earned support from union members and old hands who knew the strategies that could win inside each neighborhood caucus meeting.
Murphy sees Obama as the most vulnerable in that sense.
"He's attracting huge numbers of young people, which is fantastic, but the flip side of that is educating and training those young people," Murphy said.
Contact Charlotte Eby at (515) 243-0138 or {
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