By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2007
DES MOINES, Jan. 26 -- When New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives here for her first presidential campaign events this weekend, she will encounter unfamiliar terrain -- a landscape where she is not the perceived front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Although Clinton appears formidable at the national level, she has not built up a lead in Iowa, home of the first caucuses of the 2008 campaign next January. Most recent polls of Iowa Democrats have shown former senator John Edwards of North Carolina in the lead, with Clinton in a pack that includes Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.
"This is anyone's race to win, including obviously Governor Vilsack, who is very familiar with the landscape here," said newly elected Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D), who met with Clinton shortly after she arrived Friday afternoon but who is remaining neutral. "That's the wonderful thing about the caucus process. The winner will have to earn it."
That puts Clinton in the unusual position of having to prove herself against other Democrats, and having to build up a political infrastructure in Iowa at a time when many rivals already have a head start. Her appearances here -- her first in more than three years -- are certain to start a media frenzy, potentially intruding on the direct access to candidates that caucus-goers have come to expect.
There are many reasons why Clinton may meet resistance in Iowa. An obvious one is her vote for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq. Although she has increasingly become a harsh critic of the administration, her long support for the conflict -- and her refusal to renounce her vote -- has left a sour taste among some liberal Democrats.
She also has opposed subsidies for ethanol, a politically incorrect position for any presidential candidate seeking support in an agricultural state such as Iowa.
But, more fundamentally, her challenge may be finding ways to show Iowa Democrats that she is a more personable and accessible figure.
"Her history is eight years at the White House and six years as a U.S. senator -- all of it with Secret Service -- and there's many obstacles that go along with it, many of which Vice President Gore faced in 2000," said Steve Hildebrand, a senior Obama adviser who ran the Clinton-Gore reelection effort in the 1996 race and managed Gore's victory over Bill Bradley in Iowa in 2000.
"She's going to have to figure out how to get outside of that circle, in order to have the same kinds of dialogues with Iowa voters that all the other candidates are going to have," Hildebrand said. "It's expected in these early states, and she's going to have to figure out how to get that done."
J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register, said the key for Clinton is "to figure out how to make it personal."
Clinton advisers accept the polls as generally accurate and reject suggestions that she will have trouble converting skeptics into supporters. She has, they argue, only begun the process of introducing herself to Iowans, in a dinner in Washington last month and with a handful of phone calls to key activists.
"She needs to get out there and start campaigning," one Clinton adviser said. "I think there is a fundamental stubbornness about [Iowans] that they're not going to be favorable until they see them. They want to see Senator Clinton personally."
The previous time Clinton appeared in Iowa was November 2003, when she served as emcee at a state Democratic fundraising dinner featuring the party's 2004 presidential candidates.
She did not campaign in the state last year during her reelection campaign in New York, choosing to avoid any indications that she already had her eye on the presidency.
Former president Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker at a Democratic Party dinner in October, a few weeks before the midterm elections, but though he is very popular among rank-and-file activists, neither he nor Sen. Clinton has spent much time campaigning in Iowa living rooms over the years.
Bill Clinton essentially wrote off Iowa in 1992 because Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was a presidential candidate that year, and in 1996 because Clinton faced no primary opposition in his reelection campaign.
Sen. Clinton is just beginning to put an organization in place and to attract endorsements. She named JoDee Winterhof, a former top adviser to Harkin, as her Iowa state director on Friday. Former Iowa attorney general Bonnie Campbell is heavily involved as a non-paid adviser and supporter. Another veteran of Harkin's staff, Lorraine Voles, serves as Clinton's Senate communications director.
But other Iowa veterans are already signed up elsewhere, including David Plouffe, a former Harkin acolyte who is running the Obama campaign.
Vilsack's presence in the race complicates the efforts of all candidates to line up endorsements from top elected officials in the state, but there is a scramble underway for the backing of state legislators and county officials. "With Hillary in the race, with Obama in the race, Iowa politicians are pretty smart about this process," said a party official who spoke about the competition on the condition of anonymity. "I think they're going to keep their powder dry and see how it's playing out."
Obama's appearance at an annual steak fry hosted by Harkin last fall helped touch off interest in Obama's presidential bid. The Clinton campaign regards him as a candidate who has enormous potential appeal but who is untested in the rigors of national campaigns.
Edwards, who finished second in the 2004 caucuses, has been to Iowa 17 times since the beginning of 2005, maintaining his network of supporters. None of the other Democrats underestimates his strength in the state, although several strategists in Iowa say he may have trouble holding his position over the course of the year.
"John Edwards has been out there a lot, and he ran before, and since that time he's been cultivating people, meeting them in living rooms, signing up people, and that means a lot," said Harkin, who is supporting Vilsack.
"And then Barack Obama, when he came to my steak fry -- I haven't seen anything like that since Robert Kennedy ran for president."