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Iowa guards its place in the spotlight


In June, representatives of the Greater Des Moines Partnership sat before reporters from around the world who had gathered at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C., for a briefing on the quirky – and, to some, irksome – tradition that brings hundreds of their brethren to Iowa every four years to chronicle the presidential aspirations of sometimes more than a dozen candidates.

Jason Racki, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., was getting at something – nothing new for Iowans who have become accustomed to defending a presidential selection process that begins in one of the nation’s smallest, whitest states. In only one year since the caucuses came to national prominence has the winner actually made it to the White House: Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“I’m wondering,” Racki began. “My memory is that Bill Clinton in ’92 didn’t win the Iowa caucuses …”

“How successful are we?” Libby Jacobs, the Republicans’ majority whip in the Iowa House of Representatives and a member of the Parternship’s lobbying delegation to Washington last year, finished the question. “Is it important that the candidate wins in Iowa in order to win the race? No.”

Susan Ramsey, the Partnership’s senior vice president of communications and marketing, weighed in, too. Who ultimately prevails in the caucuses – neighborhood gatherings held mostly in schools, churches and other public buildings, but also in private homes on a Monday night in January – is important, she said, but not most important. “No, we haven’t been terribly successful in picking who’s going to be president,” Ramsey said. “We have been very successful in getting that dialogue started and getting that process rolling. And that’s where we think that value is.”

“I want to piggyback on that,” said state Rep. Wayne Ford, a Des Moines Democrat who organizes the Brown-Black Presidential Forum, which brings minority issues to light in the presidential selection process and is the only such forum in the nation. “… The bottom line is this: The first three, not the winner, but it’s the first three. In order for you to go to New Hampshire and have a decent race and continue to raise money, you want to be in that first three – one, two or three …”

The conversation illustrates how fiercely Iowans defend the caucus system and how vital they are in winnowing the field of candidates – this year, nine Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination – and setting the tone of national political debate. The campaign ends in the state Jan. 19. Most of the interest this year is on the Democratic side, but Republicans, too, will caucus to begin the process of re-nominating President George W. Bush and drafting planks for the county, state and ultimately national GOP platforms.

Iowa’s importance in the presidential selection process is unquestioned. “Iowa has become the most important stop in the primary calendar,” said Amy Walter, a political analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report. “It’s even supplanted New Hampshire because of how close all the primary elections have become. This is really the state where the question of whether [current Democratic front-runner Howard] Dean can be beaten will be answered. If Dean wins Iowa, he’ll be hard to beat.”

Iowa also takes heat because caucuses tend to attract the party faithful in disproportionate numbers. They require a greater time commitment than simply filling in an oval on a primary election ballot, sometimes as long as two hours. When there’s a Democratic contest, as there is this year, attendance hovers around 100,000, or 20 percent of the state’s registered Democrats. The biggest criticisms, though, concern Iowa’s size and ethnic diversity.

“We’re not the Iowa of the 1950s,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer said, pointing to growth in minority population in the state, particularly among Latinos, but also among Eastern Europeans, African-Americans and Asians. “But are we a fully representative state? The fair answer is no, but which state is? Unless you’re talking about a California or New York, not every state is going to be perfectly representative, and the argument can be made those states aren’t representative of small states.”

Its size is of the qualities candidates appreciate most about Iowa, said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor.

“There is a sense it’s a small state with almost no political corruption – Iowa has a clean, good reputation in that respect – and a place where people are very educated and ask probing questions,” he said. “Even though people still want to make jokes about Iowa, the jokes could be a lot more unpleasant. You see Iowa mentioned, not in the negative, but as a place where people are honest, hard-working and neighborly – probably beyond what we really are.”

In a geographically larger state, candidates would be forced to use more paid television spots, resulting in a more remote, impersonal campaign, Schmidt said. “It forces candidates to answer questions and not just rely on an air war, but a ground war with infantry,” Schmidt said. “They have to go into people’s houses, cafes and bars, machine sheds, and factories.”

Having a small state as the first-in-the-nation test of presidential strength levels the playing field for lesser-known candidates who lack the campaign war chests needed to buy airtime, Schmidt said, but it also “gives a leg up to individuals who have … enough leisure time to come to Iowa for a full year to make their connections, and that eliminates some people.”

“Also, the conventional wisdom is that the Iowa caucuses give preference to individuals in the Democratic Party who are more progressive – Iowa prides itself on having no defense spending – so it does give a certain amount of greater visibility to candidates that are more inclined toward diplomacy and less on hard power,” he said.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, for example, isn’t campaigning in Iowa at all. “It’s not a state where someone with his particular background would be embraced,” Schmidt said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman also has for the most part abandoned Iowa, leaving it to Dean, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun to divvy up support among the 100,000 Democrats who are expected to caucus on Jan. 19.

Besides giving Iowans a strong voice in the presidential selection process, the caucuses are good for Iowa in other respects, Schmidt said. He thinks the state’s congressional delegation enjoys a disproportionate amount of influence because of Iowa’s political prominence. “They’ve given Iowa a name,” he said. Also, candidates are forced to develop platforms on issues important to Iowans, such as ethanol, agriculture and Medicare reimbursement.

He questions, though, whether the Iowa caucuses and early key primaries are the best way to nominate presidential candidates. “It’s not just the caucuses,” he said. “Overall, the process is not good. It’s very expensive, brutal, extended and prolonged, and it drives more people away from the elections than to them.”

Iowa, though, zealously holds onto its first-in-the-nation status with legal teeth bared. A requirement that Iowa’s caucuses be the first test of presidential strength is part of the Iowa Code.

The caucuses weren’t always held in January, but in response to controversies surrounding the Vietnam War in 1968, the Iowa Democratic Party moved its caucuses, where platform discussion begins, to encourage more participation by minorities and others who felt left out of the process. In 1972, Gary Hart, then a campaign manager for South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, saw the caucuses as a vehicle to get more media attention for his candidate before the New Hampshire primary. McGovern did better than expected in Iowa, got the hoped-for increase in media coverage and eventually won the 1972 Democratic nomination for president. The same strategy worked in 1976 for Jimmy Carter, who was an obscure former Southern governor until the flurry of media attention that came with his surprise win in Iowa. Since Carter’s big bounce from the caucuses, candidates have looked at Iowa as an important early testing ground for the strength of their presidential campaigns.

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