Populist Message Gets Louder As Iowa Caucuses Kick Off Race
By: Wall Street Journal
By JACKIE CALMES and AMY SCHATZ
DES MOINES, Iowa — As Iowans kick off the unusually tight presidential nominating contest tonight, they will offer the first test of whether a populist message can resonate in the 2008 campaign.
In the frantic closing days, as candidates have touted their rÃ©sumÃ©s and needled their opponents, two leading contenders from each party — Democrat John Edwards and Republican Mike Huckabee — have ramped up their anticorporate, anti-Wall Street rhetoric.
Mr. Huckabee’s campaign represents a new challenge to the historically business-friendly Republican Party, and so far none of his rivals have picked up his rhetoric. But Mr. Edwards is tapping into a long tradition of Democrats’ receptivity to working-class appeals, and his main competitors are scrambling to echo the populism as economic anxiety has intensified among voters.
“Today’s report that the price of oil has reached $100 a barrel is just another example of how corporate greed is squeezing the middle class,” said Mr. Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, in a statement. At a packed coffeehouse in downtown Iowa City yesterday, he asked the crowd, “Are you going to let corporate greed steal your children’s future?”
Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who frequently cites rising gasoline prices and contrasts stagnant wages with CEOs’ wealth, told an audience on New Year’s Day: “A president needs to understand that what’s good for the American economy needs to be good for all Americans.”
He also contrasts his own humble roots with the privileged life of his chief rival here in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “If politics is going to end up being nothing more than about who has the most money, then we’ve not had a presidency, we’ve had a plutocracy, and we might as well put it on eBay and sell it to the highest bidder,” he said yesterday in Mason City.
The latest polls taken before tonight’s contest showed the two Republicans locked in a virtual dead heat for the lead here. On the Democratic side, Mr. Edwards, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton are in a tight three-way race.
Mr. Edwards has campaigned here since 2004, when his surprise second-place showing ultimately led to his becoming the Democratic vice presidential candidate that year. Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister with an overtly religious message to match his economic populism, is buoyed by Iowa’s large conservative evangelical population. Even if they do well here, both men face an uphill struggle against better-financed rivals in New Hampshire next week and in the following state contests.
Whatever their prospects, their economic message may continue to influence the campaign.
One of Mr. Huckabee’s chief economic promises is the “fair tax,” a national sales tax that would replace the income tax, and with it all the breaks in the tax code that corporations jealously guard. Conservative and liberal critics alike argue that such a tax would have to be higher than Mr. Huckabee suggests to raise enough revenue, and they say it would hit the very working-class people he aims to help.
But the fairness argument struck a chord with Jason Downs, a 22-year-old student at the University of Iowa who went to see Mr. Huckabee speak yesterday. “Right now the middle class is paying more taxes, the upper class has abilities to get accountants and move funds around and all that. Where if you have a consumption tax, it’s going to be a fair amount,” said Mr. Downs.
J. Knight, a 62-year-old musician, came to hear Mr. Edwards yesterday in a coffeehouse in downtown Iowa City and said he’s edging toward supporting Mr. Edwards over Mr. Obama mostly because of his concern about the unequal division of wealth in America. He says he likes Mr. Edwards’s position against the “control of government by big-money interests.”
WSJ’s Gerald Seib discusses the wide-open race in both parties and which candidates have the most to lose in Iowa. Kelsey Hubbard reports. (Jan. 3)
Sen. Clinton has spiced up her own stump speech with a bit of middle-class populism this week. “The wealthy and the well-connected have had a president for seven years,” she told a crowd in Ottumwa last night. “Meanwhile, most Americans have seen their incomes stall.”
Mr. Huckabee’s rivals haven’t picked up the rhetoric of anxiety or class warfare. One, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has gone so far as to dismiss the notion of voter unease, saying earlier in the campaign: “Not enough has been done to tell what some call the greatest story never told, and that is that we are enjoying a period of growth right now.”
Iowa is the beginning of a punishing monthlong rush of debates, primaries and caucuses nationwide that could well end for both parties on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states vote. New Hampshire’s primary is next Tuesday. Because this year’s nominating calendar is the earliest and shortest in history, decisive results in Iowa could be more critical than ever before in giving winners momentum that’s hard to stop.
In national polls, Sen. Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani have enjoyed leads for the past year. Mr. Giuliani’s lead has slipped sharply recently, and he has essentially ceded Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping Messrs. Romney, Huckabee and others will tear each other apart in the early rounds, allowing him to come back in later-voting states like Florida, New York and California, that will be more receptive to his socially liberal record.
Mr. Romney was long seen as the Republican front-runner in the first two voting states, until recent surges by Mr. Huckabee in Iowa and by Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire.
A decisive loss for Mr. Romney or Sen. Clinton in Iowa could reshuffle the preferences of voters elsewhere, and upend both candidates’ strategies of riding to the nomination on the energy of early victories. Meanwhile, a trio of Democratic dark horses — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut — all say a fourth-place finish in Iowa would keep them alive. Anything less could force them out. Among Republicans, a poor showing by Mr. Thompson tonight could foster pressure for him to withdraw.
Beyond message, the results in Iowa tonight will hinge heavily on the organizations that the campaigns have built. That’s because a caucus is a more complicated process than a primary. Participants can’t just show up anytime during the day to cast a secret ballot. They have to appear at a specified time tonight at one of nearly 3,500 sites in school auditoriums, church halls and fire stations, and commit to spending up to several hours there in open discussion. If turnout estimates are accurate, just over 10% of Iowa’s voting-age population will participate.
The three top Democrats and Mr. Romney have good organizations, supplemented by out-of-state volunteers, and they have spent millions of dollars on television advertising. Mr. Huckabee’s organization is seen as weaker, and that could hurt his showing.
The Obama campaign last Saturday alone knocked on 52,000 Iowa doors to seek and solidify support, and has lined up volunteer babysitters for some. The Clinton campaign has 5,000 drivers lined up to take supporters to the caucus sites. Many of Mrs. Clinton’s backers are older women, some of whom can’t or won’t drive on icy winter nights. The campaign has stockpiled 600 shovels should snow threaten to keep supporters inside. The forecast is for clear skies, and warming but still-freezing temperatures.
“Anybody who tells you what’s going to happen just doesn’t know the Iowa caucuses,” says former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who dropped out of the Democratic contest and supports Sen. Clinton.
–Amy Chozick and Alex Frangos contributed to this article.
Write to Jackie Calmes at firstname.lastname@example.org and Amy Schatz at Amy.Schatz@wsj.com
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