Dark Horses Run Hard in Iowa

By: Wall Street Journal

Kingmaker Past Draws White House Hopefuls In Need of Momentum
October 23, 2007

Des Moines, Iowa

Far ahead in national polls and with more ready cash than any rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton would appear a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination next year. But a far different race comes first, in Iowa, where many candidates hope Byzantine caucus rules and arcane traditions level the playing field.

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden would appear to be tilting at windmills in his presidential bid. His 3% support in national polls and $1.9 million campaign fund make him a long shot. But Mr. Biden, who has served in Congress for 35 years, says he has no intention of bailing out.

Instead, he insists he still has a shot if he can finish in the top tier of Iowa, where party caucus rules, relatively low campaign costs, a large number of undecided voters and a kingmaker tradition are keeping him and other dark horses in the race until the New Year. Iowa is likely to set its Democratic caucus for Jan. 3. The Republican caucus there has already been set for that date.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Am I whistling past the graveyard here?’” the senator said in a recent interview. “But this is what Iowa does for me: If I get close, come in second, all of a sudden I become the news.”

Iowa, though relatively small and homogenous, retains its outsized influence because it is first to choose, a position that its leaders protect. It also has gained a reputation as a political equalizer, where candidates are expected to pound the pavement knocking on doors, sip coffee at small living-room events and mix it up with an electorate that prides itself on its mastery of the political zeitgeist.

These traits make Iowa compelling for long shots. Banking on Iowa is a hallowed formula in presidential politics since George McGovern took second place there in 1972, helping propel him to the nomination. In 1976, Jimmy Carter used an Iowa win to fire his ascendancy to the White House. And, as Mr. Biden is fond of noting, John Kerry was polling 5% of Iowa voters a year before the caucus; he rose from the back of the pack, finished first and later became the party nominee.

But it hasn’t always been so. George H.W. Bush, father of the current president, upset Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980 but went on to lose the nomination. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt won the Democratic caucus in 1988 and lost the nomination. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin repeated the pattern in 1992.

A compressed 2008 nominating schedule has some campaigns thinking they may be able to skip Iowa and still maintain the momentum needed to capture their party’s nod. That is because this time around, big-delegate states such as Florida and California come earlier on the political calendar. On Feb. 5, some 20 states will vote at once; by the next day, it seems almost certain that both parties will have settled on a candidate to top their tickets.

Aides to Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani have suggested his campaign is spending more time in large states after having concluded that a good showing in a crowded Iowa field offered less momentum than an early, splashy win elsewhere. A few months ago, a leaked campaign document suggested that Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were considering a similar strategy.

But conventional wisdom persists, and most candidates are spending considerable time in Iowa, hoping for a good showing to boost their standing. Recent polls say more than half of probable caucus-goers appear undecided.

“This is the one place in America where retail politics still matters,” said Larry Rasky, Mr. Biden’s communications director. “It’s the closest thing to a fair fight that we’re going to get.”

Indeed, it does seem to be a relatively fair fight in Iowa, where polls show Mrs. Clinton nursing a single-digit lead, locked into a tight race with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Mr. Edwards has spent about a week a month in Iowa since midsummer, according to IowaPolitics.com. Nearly every major Democratic candidate with a whisper of hope has been doing the same recently, says the site, which tracks the comings and goings of candidates. This week, long shot Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut moved his family there, temporarily.

Mr. Biden, unlike his better-heeled rivals, is shepherding his money, keeping his campaign headquarters in a strip mall outside Des Moines while others operate in more upscale digs downtown. His sister and two nieces oversee operations there, providing a helping hand on the cheap. He eschews charter travel, flying commercial air from Washington. His most celebrated campaign prop is the so-called “corn wall,” a homemade tote board that measures his “ears of experience” and that of rivals, using corncobs glued to a massive plywood board.

Though scrimping on the trappings, Mr. Biden has valuable political counsel in the form of Bill Romjue, his Iowa director. Mr. Romjue’s claim to fame was engineering a surprise win in 1976 for Jimmy Carter, then a little-known former Southern governor. “We’re running a rural-based campaign here,” Mr. Romjue said of the Biden organization. “I draw up the maps with the number of delegates in each county and Biden goes out to meet them.”

Two of the strengths Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama project in other parts of the country — massive amounts of cash and overwhelming star power — are diminished attributes in Iowa. Here, caucus-goers hew to traditional politicking: They like to meet candidates personally and be wooed by them. Arena venues and large entourages makes it hard for them to connect.

As evidence that conventional political tactics have little effect on Iowa voters, Mr. Rasky, of the Biden campaign, noted that Mr. Obama’s $3 million television buy did little to boost his poll numbers. In a state where $200,000 buys ads for the entire state, Mr. Rasky says Mr. Obama, who several operatives said has booked $10 million more in ads through the New Year, risks overkill. A spokesman for Mr. Obama declined to confirm the $10 million figure or provide another.

Then there is the lower bar. When momentum is the only prize at stake, it isn’t necessary for dark horses to win a majority of the electorate. “You’re not running for 50% of the vote here,” Mr. Rasky said.

Write to Christopher Cooper at christopher.cooper@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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