In Iowa, a race too close to call

The candidates have blitzed through towns and cornfields and spent millions on ads. But in the final hours before Monday night's caucus, Democrats here remain stubbornly undecided.

By Josh Benson

Published January 20, 2004 2:14AM (EST)

John Kerry had already addressed two big gatherings of undecided voters earlier that day in Clinton and Davenport, two cities in eastern Iowa. But it was only when his campaign bus rolled into Des Moines, where most of the national press has stationed itself in the final days before Monday night's caucuses, that the scene began to resemble a circus.

On the sidewalk outside a small community center, where Kerry was to receive the endorsement of a local African-American leader and have a surprise reunion with a Vietnam veteran whose life he saved, dozens of reporters and camera crews were waiting for the bus, while dozens more of their colleagues headed inside to secure a spot to watch the proceedings. Tim Russert talked to Al Hunt, and Tom Brokaw strolled up to join the crowd.

Standing in the bus aisle as reporters and aides gathered their things, Kerry smiled. "Uh-oh," he said. "You know who's here? All the BSDs."

In this Iowa contest, the BSDs -- big swinging dicks -- have gone from calling the caucuses a contest between Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, because of their strength in public polls and their strong organizational support, to a four-way dead heat. Suddenly, Kerry -- who is shown leading in Sunday's poll by the Des Moines Register -- and John Edwards have become the compelling stories of the moment.

But Iowans have stubbornly refused to conform to the media's expectations, and they haven't been much more cooperative with the mind-bogglingly expensive ad wars the campaigns have been waging. Despite the four well-funded candidates' record-breaking expenditures, it's still sometimes easier to find undecided Iowa voters than any other kind at the increasingly jampacked campaign events.

With a significant chunk of likely caucus-goers still unpersuaded despite all the hype surrounding the campaign, it seems that two things will determine who the winner is: the campaigns' ability to organize their declared supporters, and the candidates' personal attempts to sell themselves to the many voters still making up their minds. In other words, Iowans are making their decisions based upon the strikingly simple concept of hearing out each of the Democratic candidates and -- ready? -- supporting the one who makes the best case that he should be president.

"The bottom line is that there's a law of diminishing returns with the media and with the bigfoot political operations," said Jonathan Rosen, a Dean operative who works on ground organization. "All this money was being spent by all of the campaigns in Iowa on robo-calls, mail, surrogates and ads. The media focuses on that, because it's a much easier story to write than what's happening on the ground. The lesson to be learned is that people are more sophisticated in a state this small, and with this much exposure to the candidates, than any of that stuff gives them credit for."

It is, of course, impossible to know exactly what the effect has been of the commercials, or of the high-profile endorsements each candidate has hoped to leverage into popularity among Iowans. Dean, for example, left Iowa two days before the caucuses to be with former President Jimmy Carter. He then returned to Iowa yesterday and was joined by a "surprise guest," his wife, Judy Steinberg Dean, who'd flown in from Vermont to make a brief campaign appearance with her husband - her first such appearance since last summer.

"I wanted to come here today, I wanted to say thank you to the people of Iowa who have been so kind and gracious to my husband," she said. The crowd cheered her as if she were a rock star.

At a Kerry event tonight at the Iowa Fairgrounds, he took the stage with, among others, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, former presidential candidate Gary Hart, and E-Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, helping him attract an overflow crowd of around 2,000. Gephardt, whose most important endorsements in Iowa were probably from the heads of the unions that provide most of his strength, went in a slightly different direction by producing singer Michael Bolton to sing at one of his events.

The star power of high-profile supporters may help to attract crowds and media to events. But the key to growing support beyond each candidate's core adherents is in-person campaiging, where Iowa voters seek -- demand, really -- answers to their questions before agreeing to throw their support to any one candidate. That's been best exemplified by the once-moribund Kerry campaign, which has made great strides in the polls through countless baby steps out on the campaign trail.

He gave what has become a typical performance at the Radisson Quad City Plaza in Davenport, where a crowd of several hundred Iowans had waited for him for an hour before his "Real Deal Express" finally pulled up. After introductions from a local pastor, and then by his wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry, who has been touring the state on his behalf, Kerry gave his stump speech, studded with such ovation-inducing crowd pleasers as, "I came here to Davenport to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency!"

Then he started taking questions, announcing upfront that he would stay until every undecided voter had had his or her questions answered satisfactorily. And the voters had questions. One asked about federal testing in public schools. Another asked about aid money to AIDS-ravaged African nations. After the better part of an hour, Kerry sensed it was time to begin wrapping up, and asked if anyone in the crowd had any questions that, if left unanswered, would preclude their supporting him at the caucuses.

Hands shot up all over the room. One woman, the wife of a disabled veteran, blurted out tearfully that she couldn't possibly let him leave without an explanation of what she could do to help her husband who, she said, was getting completely inadequate care from the Veterans Administration.

He answered that it was a "huge" issue for him, and vowed to do more than the Bush administration has for cash-strapped veterans and their families. "The first measure of patriotism is keeping faith with those who wore the uniform," he assured her, "and I will do that, OK?"

A question followed about stem cell research, followed by one about judicial appointments. After another half-hour, Kerry's agitated staff huddled with the reporters in his entourage to announce that they would be blowing off the next event -- a candidate forum in Dubuque that was to start in 20 minutes, but was 90 minutes' drive distant.

Kerry is certainly not the only candidate who has been having problems meeting the demands of Iowans for face time. Edwards, Dean and Gephardt -- as well as Dennis Kucinich, the other candidate running in Iowa -- all had full schedules that took them all across the state. And, as evidenced by the large crowds turning out for these candidates, Iowans were still looking to those personal appearances to make up their minds.

"Our events have been so much bigger than we expected that we ultimately have to cut off the Q and A sessions in order to have him answer questions one-on-one afterwards," said Edwards' traveling press secretary, Kim Rubey. "We do our best to stay on schedule but with those crowds, it's tough to get him out of events. At a certain point, you can pretty much rip up the schedule."

So why go to so much trouble to indulge seemingly endless interrogations from voters? The answer, apparently, is that organization, while crucial, isn't a substitute. In fact, with so much time and resources being invested in bombarding Iowans with phone calls, door knocks, mailings and television ads -- by some estimates, the competing campaigns have spent $90 per caucus-goer -- many residents have concluded that there can be entirely too much of good thing.

"We've called everybody in my precinct 10 to 15 times," said Jerry Kirkham, a Korean War veteran who began volunteering for the Kerry campaign about three months ago. "It's to the point where some people just -- " he stopped, and then mimed the action of slamming down a phone.

But, he predicted, there will be a record turnout, phone calls or not. "There are a lot of people who are mad at Bush, who want to stand up and be counted, who are going to go to the caucuses for the first time. My saying is, don't let the minority pick the candidate for you. If you don't go to the caucuses, shame on you."

Another woman in attendance, Julianne Hardy, is a realtor and a mother of nine children, five of whom had served in the military. She said that she is a registered Republican who goes to the caucuses every election, and is thinking about supporting Kerry this time. But she, too, intimated that her leanings have little to do with the phone calls she gets from campaigns and pollsters "every 10 minutes." She had come on a Saturday to hear Kerry speak, she said, because "it is really important that he has a military background, and I want to hear about what he'll do for the soldiers in Iraq and veterans."

To get the votes of the Mrs. Hardys all over Iowa, campaigns have redoubled their efforts to lure potential supporters to their events in the closing days of the Iowa campaign. Later that night, Kerry gave his usual stump speech before an animated crowd of just under 1,000 people, challenging President Bush on the issue of national security to "bring ... it ... on!" In order to draw that number of attendees, the campaign had rolled out Gary Hart, Theresa Heinz Kerry, and a new fixture of the campaign -- Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret whose life Kerry had dramatically saved 35 years ago in Vietnam.

As the voters walked away, many wearing newly acquired Kerry stickers, other campaigns wasted no time in trying to woo them away. Some 30 yards from the stage set up for Kerry, two New Yorkers -- City Council members Bill de Blasio and Eric Malave-Dilan -- were handing out leaflets advertising an Edwards event the next day in nearby Cedar Rapids. (De Blasio offered me one, smilingly, for "when you're ready to cover the front-runner ...")

Busy Dean campaign workers were just feet away, milling around campaign offices in the same complex that was very much open for business.

All this shows not only how intense the competition is for these voters, but how futile an exercize it is to use polls or a comparison of largely untested campaign organizations to predict the outcome of the caucuses.

After all, despite the attention from candidates, each of the campaigns can attest to just how difficult it actually is to "lock up" supporters. Ernest Walker, a security guard who had seen a number of rallies recently, said that the Kerry event at the mall in Iowa City was the biggest he had witnessed so far. He said he was a Democrat, and that he definitely planned to go to the caucuses, but that he still hadn't been swayed by Kerry -- or anyone else. "They all have good ideas," he said. "But I'm still waiting to see who's my best option."

A few minutes after Kerry's event finished up in Iowa City, the candidate was on his way to another gathering, a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids where he was introduced to approximately 250 undecided voters by former Sen. Gary Hart, and which lasted, thanks to an extended question-and-answer session, until well past midnight.

And at an event the next day, a rally in Waterloo in a school audiorium that could only be described as mobbed, Ted Kennedy, Kerry's senior colleague from Massachusetts, showed up to campaign with him. Kerry opened with a story -- perhaps apocryphal -- about the time two years ago that he called Kennedy to let him know that he'd be running for president. Kennedy's response, according to Kerry, was, "You mean you're registering to be an Iowa caucus-goer?"

"You don't know what kind of power you have out there," Kerry told the crowd, before correcting himself. "Actually you do," he said. "That's why we're here."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections George W. Bush Howard Dean John Edwards John F. Kerry D-mass.