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The Iowa effect


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The caucuses make and unmake candidates and this time is no different. Can Dean beat Gephardt and the expectations too?

Who made Iowa so important, anyway? Four years ago, the ambitious Governor of another small state dismissed Iowa and its clumsy caucuses as a waste of time.

"If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests in both parties, [and] the special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people," Vermont's then governor Howard Dean said on an obscure Canadian public-affairs program.

The caucuses can stretch on all night, Dean noted, and he expressed wonderment that average people would even bother with them: "I can't stand there and listen to everyone else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world."

But he did, and Iowa returned the favor. Since making those comments unearthed last week by NBC News (part of a mountain of Dean's earlier television appearances that the Bush-Cheney campaign has also been poring over)--Dean has been one of Iowa's most frequent visitors. He has made 103 trips there since February 2002.

Everything he said about the caucuses was true and still is but as it turns out, some of those very characteristics proved the making of Howard Dean. In his unlikely transition from underfunded obscurity to the front of the Democratic pack, Iowa was where he found both his voice and his rationale for running. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Dean discovered you can hear a lot just by listening.

He had planned to run on a high-fiber policy diet of health care, early-childhood education and fiscal discipline, he recently told TIME. But in Iowa he learned something about voters that had not yet popped up on the national radar. "There was an intensity and kind of feeling by ordinary Americans that their government didn't care about them, didn't value them, and their employers didn't value them," Dean recalls. "It wasn't anger, though. It was despair. It was feeling loss of value and it was in Iowa, and Iowa's not an angry place."

Dean and six other Democrats will soon know whether all the time they have spent in Ottumwa and Council Bluffs and Davenport and Fort Dodge has paid off. Iowa's first-in-the-nation contest is only a week away, and most polls show Dean holding a narrow lead over Congressman Dick Gephardt, who won the caucuses in 1988 and whose candidacy will be all but finished if he doesn't eke out another victory this time.

Gephardt is drawing most of his support from older, less affluent Iowans, Dean from upscale, educated and more socially liberal voters. The choice reflects the generational struggle within the party, and it's a test of whether the new voters Dean claims to have recruited will be enough to overcome the forces that have dominated the caucuses.

There is even a fight to be the best also-ran, with a spirited battle for third place being waged by Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Though no one really trusts the predictions, turnout is expected to be double the 61,000 who braved the winter chill to vote in the 2000 caucuses.

Whatever the number, a significant share of the voters--13%, in a KCI-TV poll last week are still undecided. Once again Iowa is proving to be an unpredictable crucible, molding and remolding candidates and their messages in a state with a population smaller than metropolitan Cleveland.

Every credible contender is doing his best to manage expectations, because beating them in Iowa is almost as important as beating the other candidates. Kerry, for instance, likes the buzz his reinvigorated campaign has been getting, but aides are trying to tamp down speculation that it might vault him past Gephardt and into second place.

"A strong third here is the ticket out of Iowa," says Kerry's state director, John Norris. And when Jim Bernau, the host of a Dean house party in Altoona, predicted Dean would beat Gephardt by 12 points, Dean quickly put a stop to that talk. "My God," he told Bernau, "you're supposed to lower expectations. If we beat him by 1 1/2 points, that will be fantastic." And to make any kind of victory likely, Dean last week pressed for and won the state's most sought-after endorsement that of popular Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

No one ever said democracy is easy, but Iowa makes it about as difficult as it gets. Candidates must pull people away from their dinner tables and children's homework on a weekday evening in the depth of winter to go to one of almost 2,000 caucuses at the local school gymnasium or library or steak house, where they might spend an entire evening arguing politics with their neighbors. (So large is the expected turnout that the traditional gatherings in people's living rooms have all but disappeared.)

The math can get complicated, as supporters of candidates who fail to garner 15% in any caucus are given a chance to throw their vote to a second or even a third choice. And with delegates apportioned across the state in a mini-version of the Electoral College, a credible candidate must try to pull it off in every one of Iowa's 99 counties. Says the veteran Gephardt: "It doesn't do you a lot of good to have a runaway margin in one county or two or three, even if it's highly populated."

All this means that even before the first ballot has been cast, Iowa has given each of the top four Democratic contenders a chance to learn a lot about their own strengths and weaknesses. And each in his own way has been humbled by the fact that no matter how ready you think you are to run for President, nothing can prepare you for that first encounter with the icy Iowa wind. Here's how Iowa has remade or unmade each of the other main contenders:

Dick Gephardt's last call

It may have come as a revelation to Dean, but Gephardt could have told him Iowans like a fresh face and a voice that expresses their frustration. In 1988 Gephardt was that face and that voice. This time, the former House Democratic leader is trying to convince Iowa that experience counts for something too.

What may matter even more is the personal connection he has with Iowans such as the 78-year-old man who sat in a wheelchair off to the side at a Gephardt rally last week in a machine shed on Robert and Joyce Ausberger's Greene County farm.

John Ferrari Sr. proudly held a 16-year-old poster with a picture of a younger Gephardt and his old slogan, "It's Your Fight Too!" Ferrari was there for Gephardt because Gephardt had been there for him when he was losing his farm back in 1988.

His son John Jr. explained that he had gone to see all the other candidates. "They're good, but I always went back to Dick Gephardt, because he was common. When I look at a candidate, I look at where he came from. He was raised poor. Unless you have ever been poor, you don't know what it is."

These are the people Gephardt is going to need, but he acknowledges that he will need a lot of other folks too. Younger ones, for example. "A lot of people who were for me in '88 aren't here anymore," he says.

He has also lost part of the base he once had, as some Democrats, desperate to find a winner against Bush, have written him off as too old, too shopworn, too battle-scarred from more than a quarter-century in Washington.

Despite being labor's most steadfast and influential ally in Congress, Gephardt did not get the AFL-CIO endorsement (its leadership decided to stay on the sidelines until the primaries are over), and its two largest unions those of government workers and service workers bolted for Dean's camp.

But Gephardt has almost all the industrial unions behind him, and that will count a lot next Monday. If he repeats his old victory in Iowa, he says, he will not repeat the mistake he made the first time. He has kept enough cash to keep going after Iowa into South Carolina, his home state of Missouri and North Dakota on Feb. 3, and heavily industrial Michigan four days later. But even a second-place finish in Iowa could mean Gephardt is through.

John Kerry's Second Chance

You don't find many Iowans who relate to Kerry as one of them. In his pressed Ralph Lauren khakis and the $75 haircuts he favors, the Massachusetts Senator looks at home in a rural setting about as much as Paris Hilton does.

But the man who passed up the pork chops for a strawberry smoothie at the state fair last summer is not making jokes anymore about the "hog-lot aromatic experience" of campaigning in Iowa. Kerry is trailing Dean badly in New Hampshire a neighboring state for both of them that will hold its primary the week after Iowa and is desperate for a stronger-than-expected finish in Iowa.

He'll need it if he's to have any hope of regaining the front-runner status Washington insiders once bestowed on him. "I'm going to come out of Iowa and show you folks this is a campaign worth listening to," he told a group of New Hampshire businesspeople last week.

Kerry has taken out loans to put $6.5 million of his fortune into his campaign and has moved much of it into Iowa along with such savvy operatives as Michael Whouley, who ran Al Gore's ground game. He has fired his campaign manager, installed some Teddy Kennedy hands at the top and on Saturday brought out Kennedy (who finished second in the 1980 Iowa caucuses, challenging Jimmy Carter) to campaign with him in Davenport, Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. Kerry's speeches have become shorter and more passionate.

For Kerry, Iowa seemed to ignite the fire in his belly while getting him to jettison the drowsy Senate-speak he was using only a few months ago. Public polls have moved a bit, and the internal numbers "have the right feel," an aide says. Some of his gains are probably coming from Dean's share of the vote.

Paradoxically, Dean has an interest in seeing that Kerry doesn't do too badly in Iowa. If Kerry craters, that might boost retired general Wesley Clark (who, with Senator Joseph Lieberman, opted to skip Iowa) to second in New Hampshire, which could catapult him into position as Dean's principal rival.

John Edwards a man before his time

Iowa may like a fresh face, but apparently not too fresh. Senator John Edwards has the face of Prince Charming but a working-class life story as the son of a millworker. He has poured millions of dollars into the state and put forward a set of populist ideas that would seem tailor-made for Iowa.

But it has yet to come together for the first-term Senator from North Carolina, who has the most upbeat, positive appeal in the race. He says he is in the race to win, though even his Iowa co-chairwoman, Roxanne Conlin, concedes that a third-or fourth-place finish is probably the best he can hope for.

Which is not to say Iowans don't like him especially when they meet him in person. Retired school custodian Jack Fees arrived at an Edwards appearance last week in Des Moines trying to decide among Edwards, Gephardt and Kerry. He was sold. "He reminded me of J.F.K., the way he talks and tells it like it is, and he's the underdog," Fees said of Edwards.

What Iowa did for Edwards was to get him to overcome his lack of gravitas with more meaty and populist ideas in line with Iowa voters. But the problem is, not even a small state like Iowa affords a candidate the time to win over enough voters one by one, the way Edwards in his trial-lawyer days could persuade a jury.

With only days left, Edwards, looking for any opportunity, eagerly jumped on Dean's dredged-up caucus misstep the latest in a litany of gaffes by the front runner. "It's wrong for outsiders to come in and make disparaging remarks about things they don't understand," Edwards said.

For once, Dean didn't dispute a charge being hurled at him by an opponent. "I was talking four years ago," he said. "If I knew then what I know now ..." Iowa is a small state that teaches big lessons. They are about the value of knowing how to listen and of knowing when to watch what you say. They are about learning whether it's too late for another chance or too soon to take your first one. And if a candidate doesn't learn them in Iowa, he may never get another chance anywhere else.

With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr./with Dean; Betsy Rubiner/Des Moines; and Douglas Waller/with Kerry

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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