In presidential politics, Iowa still packs a wallop
Four years ago, Howard Dean was the hottest candidate on the planet, raising more cash on the Internet than any White House hopeful before...
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cantwell endorses ClintonDemocrat Hillary Rodham Clinton has picked up the backing of Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington. Her campaign was to announce the endorsement today.
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The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Howard Dean was the hottest candidate on the planet, raising more cash on the Internet than any White House hopeful before him. Dick Gephardt, a winner once before in Iowa, led in November polls and had campaigners in satin union jackets stumping.
Then on Jan. 19 at 7 p.m., in their curious exercise in democracy, 124,000 Iowans gathered for two hours in homes, schools and church basements and dramatically shifted the course of presidential politics.
John Kerry and John Edwards stunned onlookers by scoring a solid first and second, respectively, propelling them to the top of the Democrats' 2004 ticket. Dean finished third and was all but done. Gephardt, crushed by a fourth-place showing, headed to St. Louis rather than New Hampshire and quit electoral politics for good.
Never mind that the kingmakers and career-killers represented 6 percent of voters in a state that doesn't come close to mirroring America. Forget that caucuses disenfranchise military personnel and Iowans overseas, as well as second-shift workers, students away at college or maybe parents whose baby-sitter didn't show.
Despite its flaws, Iowa's precinct caucuses remain an institution of U.S. politics, and when they convene Thursday night in the earliest opening to an election season, Iowa may well pack more clout than ever.
Skeptics counter that the so-called "Iowa effect" will be diminished because of heavily front-loaded voting aimed toward Feb. 5, when 24 states will cast ballots.
Yet many believe that early impressions could be critical with so much on the line in such a short time. Only five days separate Iowa from the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary — little time for bruised wannabes to mend their campaigns in the hothouse of media focus and busy blogging.
One poll this month suggested a heightened Iowa effect: In New Hampshire, one in every five women said they were fully prepared to change their vote if their favorite candidate did not win Iowa. The softness was especially true for Republican women, one in every three saying they were ready to jump ship if their candidate flopped in the Hawkeye State, according to telephone surveys.
"The rest of the country really trusts Iowa to make a good first judgment," said Fritz Wenzel, who helped conduct the poll for Lifetime Channels.
The attention to Iowa is amplified this year if only because both parties are in the throes of candidate selection. Not since 1988 — the year Gephardt narrowly defeated Illinois Sen. Paul Simon in Iowa — have Democrats and Republicans had such a wide-open competition for nominees.
Iowa is historically more important for Democrats, while New Hampshire has meant more in the GOP race. Republicans have been more adept at surviving pratfalls in Iowa; in 1988, George H.W. Bush went on to win the presidency despite finishing third behind Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson.
This year, some leading Republicans are barely competing in Iowa — most notably Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Polls last week showed Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois neck-and-neck in the lead with Edwards close behind, leading to predictions that any of the three could win.
The GOP contest looked to be a two-man affair with Mike Huckabee hoping to see the first fruits of a remarkable rise and Mitt Romney in danger of seeing his early-state strategy in tatters.
Among Republicans, Iowa political analysts believe, Iowa could pose special peril to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has spent heavily in Iowa and has campaigned there more than any of his rivals.
Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee's rocketlike rise among GOP hopefuls has raised expectations for his candidacy, which may need an Iowa victory to keep up its upward arc.
For Democrats, the caucuses are shaping up as especially critical for Edwards. A third-place showing could be damaging to the former North Carolina senator, who has less money than rivals to run the harrowing electoral gantlet that awaits.
And might Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware finally leapfrog into the top tier of candidates? Or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson? Or Sen. Chris Dodd, of Connecticut, who moved his family to Iowa for the campaign?
Almost always, surprises occur in the Iowa precinct caucuses, a unique game of perception where you can lose if you win, sink if you lose and soar with newfound fame into a fast-moving circus of primaries simply by defying expectations.
It's the American way of electing a president: a system of codependency between the news media, candidates and a small (3 million people) state that good-government types find exclusionary and just plain messy.
The Iowa caucuses "are such a daunting and rigid process, it's not surprising that the turnout is so low," said Tova Wang, an election expert at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that explores issues related to democracy. "There's a lot of nostalgia about getting together with your neighbors and talking about candidates and their issues. But it just doesn't work in modern politics."
With African-American and Hispanic voters less than 5 percent of its electorate, Iowa is "completely unrepresentative of the country," argued American University political historian Allan Lichtman, calling the caucuses "a media obsession" with predictive benchmarks that don't predict."
Yet there's something endearing about discerning Midwesterners setting the table for electing a president. It's healthy all around, Iowa's defenders say, for would-be leaders to be forced to explain their ambitions in the parlors of regular folks.
"It's almost like a test drive both for a candidate and caucus-goers," said Dianne Bystrom, an Iowa State University political-science professor. "It's Iowa's role to look under the hood and kick the tires. And they take it very seriously. Meanwhile, candidates get to test their messages."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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