A thaw in Iowa?

By Josh Benson

Published January 15, 2004 9:15PM (EST)

It's freezing in Des Moines but the Democratic race is heating up, and suddenly everybody's playing the nice card. It's as if everybody got the same talking points: Iowans like nice.

At a John Edwards event in the Renaissance Savery Hotel on Locust Street, the message was "opportunity, optimism and hope" according to Edwards and the two politicians who introduced him, the Iowa State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald and North Carolina Governor Michael Easley. Edwards attributes his recent surge in the polls to the fact that he's stayed out of the race for nastiest. "My campaign is not about any negative attacks," he told a crush of national reporters.

John Kerry, who hasn't always played nice in the past, has obviously come to a similar conclusion about what works with Iowans. Kerry is enjoying at least one day as the nominal frontrunner -- the Zogby poll released today had him half a point ahead of Dean. At a marathon question-and-answer session at the Des Moines Playhouse Wednesday night, a room packed with undecided Iowa Democrats asked question after question about mostly local issues. Kerry stayed away from attacks on other candidates, except to say mildly, "We have to offer more than anger..." And everybody knows who's angry.

But Howard Dean wasn't angry at all on Thursday, despite his sudden dip in the polls. At a crowded rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, he prefaced mild criticism of Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt with this proviso: "I personally like John Edwards, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, but..." And he reiterated a line he has often used in response to characterizations of his campaign as angry: "This campaign is not about anger -- it's about hope."

The sunniness couldn't mask the intensity of the competition for victory in the upcoming caucuses, which now looks within the reach of any one of those four candidates. While the competitors are stumping, their ads are a constant fixture on television, and their mailings -- which are often anything but nice; direct mail has seen the harshest political criticism -- are filling the boxes of Democratic Iowans to overflowing. Volunteers are everywhere, hustling in and out of headquarters downtown and heading out in small groups, registration lists in hand, to knock on doors and invite people to the caucuses. We'll see if the four frontrunners will be able to stay nice all weekend as the first contest approaches.

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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