Candidates Hope Not to Wear Out Holiday Welcome in Iowa

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Once Sen. Christopher J. Dodd finishes having Thanksgiving turkey on a farm in eastern Iowa tonight, he can turn his attention to another pressing matter: making sure his two daughters know that Santa Claus will find them this year.

Merry Christmas, campaign 2008 style.

The calendar crunch means that candidates are facing tough decisions -- both personal and political -- about what to do on and around Dec. 25, when voters will still be making up their minds but will presumably want a break from the current campaign bombardment.

Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, recently moved his family into a three-bedroom rental in Des Moines, where they will be spending Christmas, New Year's and virtually every day until the caucuses on Jan. 3. But his is only the most extreme example of a phenomenon that cuts across the presidential field this year, when, as a result of the pushed-up primary schedule, the Iowa caucuses will strike barely a week after the last reindeer has flown.

"I think you have to be very, very careful on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day," Dodd said in a phone interview yesterday as he drove between stops making deliveries to food pantries on a snowy night in Iowa. "You wouldn't want to be making calls. So the activities will be carefully selected."

Dodd and his family, who are already receiving Christmas dinner invitations from supporters, will not be alone that night no matter what: Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and his extended family are living in a Des Moines hotel these days and will probably spend some portion of the Christmas holiday there. The campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) says it will shut down for the day, but not much beyond that. The Iowa offices of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) plan to "dim the lights" but not shut down entirely.

"It's tricky," said Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. "You spend 10 months trying to be Santa Claus and you don't want to wind up being the Grinch, stealing Christmas and invading people's privacy. But it's so close to the caucuses, you can't avoid talking to people and so I'm sure that we will."

The Obama campaign has already had discussions about how to spend the holiday, recognizing that in the 2004 caucuses, about 40 percent of voters made up their minds in the final week. Axelrod declined to describe specific plans, but, he said, "What I can tell you is: I don't think you can just disappear, because it is so close. People are making their final decisions."

More than just a family inconvenience, the holiday crunch has left advisers contemplating other unprecedented questions of timing, such as when, exactly, to stop calling voters at home -- over the weekend, on Dec. 21? Christmas Eve? -- and to run advertisements, especially of the negative variety. It is not, advisers to candidates in both parties said, inconceivable that some campaigns may even run positive ads on Christmas Day itself. Although the Christmas holiday provides a captive audience in family living rooms, the campaigns are sensitive to wearing out their welcome.

"I think in every previous job I've had, you've had off the week in between Christmas and New Year's," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is counting on a victory in Iowa as part of his strategy for capturing the Republican nomination.

"Here it's January 3, and then New Hampshire is January 8, and there is no time off," Forti said. Romney has not determined his precise schedule around Christmas, Forti said, but the campaign expects to keep moving until Dec. 23 or 24, and then to reopen on the 26th.

At the Obama headquarters, supporter Gordon Fischer said, Thanksgiving "is being treated as a real holiday." Not so Christmas, when some volunteers are expected to be on hand to stuff envelopes, perform data entry and prepare yard signs.

"I like Christmas -- I'm a very serious Catholic -- but on the other hand, I'm really kind of pumped up about the caucuses," Fischer said. "I'm excited about Obama, and things seem to be moving in the right direction for him. So it's a small sacrifice."

For voters, seeing "politicians on Christmas is the equivalent of seeing the Grinch fill your stocking with coal," said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist aligned with the campaign of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. That, he said, is the central reason candidates on both sides plan to go dark on the holiday itself, not out of deference to their own families.

Still, Dyke said: "While folks will get a brief reprieve in the lead-up to Christmas, the sprint for Iowa will begin before most people have thought about taking ornaments off the tree."

Most of the campaigns have not made their final Christmas plans; one long-standing Iowa caucus tradition is leaving the schedule flexible in the final weeks so that candidates can target towns as they need to. Advisers to several campaigns said that as around other sensitive times, such as the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they do not expect to see harsh campaigning, if any at all, around the Christmas holiday.

At the same time, the Christmas season is making campaigning more expensive for the candidates. With the Iowa caucuses set for Jan. 3, they are competing for television time with department stores at the height of the retail season. Strategists say campaign ads will cost thousands more than they did last year, when the heaviest advertising took place in January.

Still, with the most important strategic decisions still left to be made, several campaigns said they have already informed staff members that they will be spending both Christmas and New Year's in Iowa.

"I think people are going to stop and take a quick breath and enjoy the holiday quickly and then get back to work the next day," said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.). He spent his Dec. 24 birthday in Manchester, N.H., four years ago while working on the campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and now expects to celebrate turning 33 in Des Moines.

And the Clinton campaign is bracing for the Dec. 31 departure of one vital member of its team: Jamie Smith, part of the traveling press staff, who long ago planned her wedding in Chicago for that night, not anticipating that the schedule would move up so much.

Still, Smith is planning on driving back to Iowa the next day, with her new husband -- despite urgings from her colleagues to take more time off. (Smith emphasized that returning to work was her own choice, and that Clinton has been supportive of her plans).

The rest of the political community, meanwhile, is making arrangements for New Year's in Des Moines. Carrie Giddins, spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party, and Mary Tiffany, her counterpart at the Iowa Republican Party, sent out an "Evite" to the media this week. "We hope to see you in downtown Des Moines on the 31st," the electronic invitation read.

"No excuses, unless of course you are covering New Hampshire."

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