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THE GURUS | Iowa's Strategists

They Know How to Caucus

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

DES MOINES -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had a decision to make. After someone in her campaign leaked a memo late last month suggesting that she skip the Iowa caucuses, the New York Democrat needed to show that she was committed to winning the crucial first contest on the presidential nominating calendar.

Her campaign repeated at every turn that it was serious about Iowa, pointing out that she had been spending a lot of time in the state. But on Tuesday, it offered the ultimate sign of its intentions: It promoted Teresa Vilmain.

Vilmain, 48, has been a near-legend among caucus operatives since she ran Michael S. Dukakis's Iowa campaign two decades ago at the age of 28. She was raised on Iowa politics, watching as her mother held Democratic caucuses in their Cedar Falls home. With her long skirts and her long hair pulled atop her head, she could be mistaken for an English professor. But she strides into rooms as if tilted against a gale, speaks in the staccato delivery of a ward boss, and never ends a meeting without "action items" for everyone present.

Just five months ago, Clinton had a private dinner in Washington with another experienced caucus operative, JoDee Winterhof, and persuaded her to leave her family in D.C. to serve as Iowa campaign director. At the time, Vilmain was working for former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, then a presidential candidate. When he dropped out, Vilmain became available. Now she will be Iowa director and Winterhof will be a senior strategist.

"If you can get Teresa Vilmain, you do it," said John Norris, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa who is not working for a campaign now. "You do whatever it takes to get [her] on board."

The battle for the best political talent takes place nationwide every election cycle, but nowhere is it fought as fiercely as in Iowa. Victory in the caucuses held here in January every four years has traditionally been seen as critical in generating what President George H.W. Bush once called the "Big Mo," and the elite group of strategist experienced in producing it are seduced and fought over.

This year the talent hunt has extended to the local level, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) paying nearly five dozen county-level supporters up to $1,000 each per month, going well beyond the half a dozen regional field staff members whom campaigns typically employ this early in the season.

The arcane ways of the Iowa caucuses are a major reason for the competition. Of the state's 2 million registered voters, a hard-fought battle in either party typically brings out no more than 125,000 participants, who must show up at a specific time on a midwinter Monday evening and are expected to stay at least two hours. The process can drag on even longer, particularly on the Democratic side, where voters must disclose their candidate preference publicly and where complex rules for apportioning delegates can result in revotes.

This means a campaign must know which voters are likely to participate -- and be able to communicate to the troops who are pursuing them where the critical line is between persistence and pestering.

"You can't approach people in Red Oak the same way you do in Philadelphia," said Democratic strategist Jeff Link, stepson of a machinist on the Burlington Northern railroad. "It's just different."

Most in demand are homegrown campaign veterans such as Dave Roederer, the Iowa chairman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), or his counterpart in the Romney campaign, Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross. Both served as chief of staff to Iowa's most recent Republican governor, Terry Branstad, a common background typical of Iowa strategists.

Most senior Democratic advisers come from one of two loosely overlapping networks: the orbs around Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa). Des Moines trial lawyer Rob Tully, the Iowa chairman for former senator John Edwards (N.C.), is a longtime Harkin adviser, as is Winterhof. Link, a former Harkin chief of staff who has also advised Vilsack, is being aggressively pursued by Edwards.


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