Iowa a Key Test for Democrats

By Dan Balz and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 7, 2007

CORALVILLE, Iowa, Oct. 6 -- From the high altitude of national polls, the race for the Democratic nomination may seem a potential runaway for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). From ground level in the state with the nation's first presidential caucuses, a far different reality exists. Here Clinton's path remains strewn with obstacles.

Iowa has become ground zero in the Democratic race. The results here could instantly change the dynamic of what has been a campaign marked elsewhere by Clinton's relentless march forward. Here the Democratic front-runner faces stiff challenges not only from Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) but also from former senator John Edwards (N.C.).

Clinton's Iowa problem has been evident from the day she entered the race in January, and it is the result of a confluence of factors that appear to exist nowhere else in the country right now. They include support for Edwards that far outpaces his backing elsewhere, the spillover effect of Obama's next-door-neighbor status as a senator from Illinois and strong organizational efforts by both her rivals.

"I think it's a function of the others running so strong here, it's difficult [for her] to break away," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan.

Part of the problem rests with Clinton herself. "When she became a candidate, she attracted the largest percentage of negatives among Democrats of any of the candidates," said J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register. "She's got people who just don't like her."

Clinton has made progress over the course of eight months of campaigning, easing but not yet erasing doubts about her support for the Iraq war and perceptions of her as cool and aloof. One sign of that progress came in a new Iowa Poll, published in today's Des Moines Register, showing her leading with 29 percent, Edwards at 23 percent and Obama at 22 percent.

Still, that Clinton has not fully solved her image problem is evident by the name her campaign has given to the bus tour she begins Monday in Cedar Rapids. They have dubbed it the "Middle Class Express" tour, as if to remind voters that she cares about the problems of hard-working Iowans.

Teresa Vilmain, Clinton's Iowa director, said the senator from New York has made "great strides since spring" in reaching Iowa voters, but she was quick to add: "We have a lot of work to do. John Edwards is still very strong."

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, an Obama supporter, said factors that influence national polls -- including a candidate's name identification and being seen as a front-runner -- are less important in Iowa because voters have more direct contact with candidates.

"Here it's a real campaign, where people are seeing the candidates close up, hearing speeches, they're being contacted by staff and volunteers," he said. "It's a much more active and intense campaign, and people are getting a much bigger, clearer view of the candidates than people are nationally. That's a huge difference."

Clinton has much on the line in Iowa, but so, too, do Obama and Edwards. They know that stopping Clinton here is essential. A defeat for Edwards probably would end his campaign, and he has said as much. Obama aides play down expectations by repeating the mantra that he has to only "do well" in Iowa, but the candidate's wife, Michelle, said recently that, if he loses here, the campaign will have been but a dream.

Clinton may be able to survive a loss in Iowa, but many strategists believe that a loss to Obama would be far more crippling than a loss to Edwards.

The intensity of the campaign here is astonishing. Obama spent four days crisscrossing the northeast quadrant of the state last week. Edwards is retracing some of those steps this weekend with a four-day swing of his own. Clinton was to arrive Saturday night for a four-day tour. No other state, including New Hampshire, has seen such a concentration of campaigning.

Obama already has spent just over $3 million on television ads. With the heaviest barrage of advertising still to come, he will set records for TV spending. Clinton, who has spent about $1.4 million by one estimate, could do the same before the Iowa campaign is over.

Clinton is not even the second-largest spender on television ads at this point. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has put down $1.8 million for a series of humorous commercials that have helped him gain some momentum.

But Richardson, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) -- all with at least pockets of support -- struggle against the reality that the three leading candidates are waging a precinct-by-precinct battle of organizers that they are so far ill-equipped to match.

Obama has an army of field operators in the state, deployed from 31 field offices, compared with 22 for Clinton and 15 for Edwards. His advisers refuse to give out the number of staffers on the ground here, but it is believed to be far in excess of the numbers Clinton and Edwards have recruited.

At his rallies, Obama rarely forgets to praise his "underpaid and under-appreciated" field organizers, and they are diligent about educating people about the caucus process.

Edwards's crowds and Iowa staff are smaller in numbers, but the breadth of his support worries his rivals. Building on his second-place finish here in 2004, Edwards has spent the past three years nurturing a base spread across a state whose caucus rules reward balanced support everywhere more than concentrated support in a few areas.

Already Edwards has visited 76 of Iowa's 99 counties, compared with 56 counties for Obama and 31 for Clinton.

All the campaigns report that well over half of the prospective caucus attendees are undecided at this point, and the history of the caucuses is that a sizable percentage of voters do not make a final decision until the final few weeks before the voting.

When all the candidates came to Iowa last month for Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, Linda Bollenbaugh of Boone was among the more than 15,000 Democrats in the crowd. She carried placards for Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Biden, and said Richardson's speech impressed her, too.

An Edwards backer in 2004, she said she is now undecided and paying very close attention. "I'm looking for more depth now, more details," she said.

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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