The Scribe Who Gets The Candidates' Vote
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
DES MOINES -- Back in May, when speculation burbled up that Hillary Clinton might bypass Iowa, David Yepsen dashed off a blog entry comparing the New York senator's campaign to previous clunkers, including the early days of Reagan 1980, Gore 2000 and Kerry 2004. "Just as those candidates realized their campaigns were top heavy and sluggish -- and that they personally needed to reach down inside themselves to be sharper and better candidates -- so, too, does Senator Clinton now," wrote Yepsen, the Des Moines Register's veteran political columnist.
A little while later, the phone rang. "Senator, why are you calling me?" he asked, startled to hear Clinton's voice. "Well, I read your blog," she replied, and she wanted more details about what he thought was wrong with her campaign. Several days ago, with her status in the Hawkeye State looking wobbly as the Jan. 3 caucuses loom, Clinton had dinner with Yepsen, huddling in a private room at a restaurant here with her Iowa campaign director, Teresa Vilmain.
The three gossiped about Iowa politics and the state of the race.
At 57, having covered every campaign here since 1976, Yepsen is the old-journalism king of the Iowa caucuses. He is also the new-journalism king of the Iowa caucuses. Heck, if the Iowa caucuses had their own currency, the bills just might have David Yepsen's face on them.
With his matter-of-fact newspaper assessments of candidates and their campaigns and his popular Register blog, launched for the 2008 cycle, he makes 'em and he breaks 'em. A positive Yepsen column is tantamount to an A-list endorsement, generating its own cycle of campaign press releases and news coverage. And if Yepsen goes negative, it can force a campaign to make changes real quick.
Consider his glowing online review of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's Nov. 10 Jefferson-Jackson Day address. Posted early the next morning, Yepsen declared, "Obama's superb speech . . . could catapult his bid." The piece got so many hits that one of the Register's servers crashed. It was picked up by Internet news sites, from ABC to the Chicago Tribune, cited as validation of Obama's sensational performance.
Three weeks later, Yepsen posted his toughest entry this year, lecturing Obama for informing out-of-state Iowa college students in a piece of campaign literature that they are eligible to participate in the caucuses, now just over two weeks away. "These are the Iowa caucuses," Yepsen wrote on Nov. 30. "Asking people who are 'not from Iowa' to participate in them changes the nature of the event."
Not many out-of-state students will be around on Jan. 3, and even if they are, it is 100 percent legal for them to participate. But the offending Obama flier has since dropped out of circulation. It may have been above board, but to Yepsen the effort just wasn't kosher.
"It jumped out at me as something that would offend Iowans," he explained in an interview. It pierces a purity about the caucuses that Yepsen strives to protect -- a purity that, should it be lost, could cost Iowa its coveted first-in-the-nation slot, and Yepsen his professional franchise.
Iowa caucusgoers are a uniquely American political subculture, a collection of civic-minded individuals in both parties who are willing to take the time to attend candidate rallies, endure endless robo-calls, and generally tune in to the presidential horse race a year before anyone else in the country. They are older; they watch news instead of game shows. They are the kind of people who attend city council meetings -- and two days after New Year's, they may be selecting your next president.
Burly and vaguely academic-looking, with a shock of wavy graying hair, Yepsen is the journalistic embodiment of the Iowa caucuses. He wears a brass belt that reads "Newsman." And somehow he has never grown cynical.
He expects the best from politicians and believes everyone, even the long shots, deserves to be heard. There aren't too many reporters who get personal phone calls from Hillary Clinton. Yepsen waves those off and wonders why he can't get an interview with Bill.