Iowa Takes a Holiday From the Campaign

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, with wife Jackie and daughters Christina, left, and Gracie, took a break yesterday in Des Moines, where he's moved his family.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, with wife Jackie and daughters Christina, left, and Gracie, took a break yesterday in Des Moines, where he's moved his family. (By M. Spencer Green -- Associated Press)
By Jose Antonio Vargas and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 25 -- Levi Knapp, one of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd's 80 field organizers in Iowa, had never been on ice skates before. Surrounded by his boss and about 15 other campaign staffers, he held gamely to the rails at Brenton Skating Plaza in the city's East Village neighborhood and occasionally tried to move forward.

"I'm from California. We don't have a lot of ice rinks in Laguna Beach," said Knapp, 33. "Hey, it's as good a time as any to learn."

Christmas Day in Iowa was a cold but sunny day of reprieve for voters, candidates and campaign aides alike, a holiday marked by a rare but much-needed break from the accelerated primary calendar.

Late Tuesday morning, lights were out at the downtown offices of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, with nary a staffer in sight. The headquarters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), locked in a tight three-way race here, were closed for the day. The only candidate in town was Dodd (D-Conn.), who moved his family to Des Moines in the fall.

Later in the day, Sarah Huckabee, daughter of the Republican presidential front-runner, caught up on some work. "I just couldn't help it," she said.

But otherwise, the presidential campaigns took their cues from voters eager for a break from nonstop appeals for support.

Bonnie Harris of West Des Moines said she usually receives at least one automated telephone call a day from Huckabee or his rivals former sentator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R). She got none yesterday, calling the change "a nice break . . . especially since everything will pick up after Christmas."

Campaigning on Christmas always has been a delicate matter for political strategists in Iowa, who have typically considered the risk of offending voters too great to let their candidate spend the holiday in pursuit of undecided Iowa caucusgoers. This year, with the calendar accelerated and the caucuses scheduled for Jan. 3, their earliest date ever, the decision to shut down was that much more difficult.

The holiday break has at times served as a critical turning point in presidential contests. On the day after Christmas in 1987, then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) unleashed the first television ad of the Iowa campaign, which helped propel him to a caucus victory. Four years ago, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) used the quiet holiday news cycle to minimize coverage of his campaign's financial woes and his decision to mortgage his house to keep his bid alive.

This year may be no different. Christmas could prove to be the moment of calm before campaigns and interest groups unveil hard-hitting, negative commercials that could make a difference in caucuses that are shaping up to be very competitive. Just before the holiday, a number of independent groups filed documents with the Federal Election Commission indicating they plan to launch negative television and radio ads in coming days.

For the time being, though, campaign workers and their candidates appeared to welcome a moment of calm. Some staffers chose to leave town and spend a few hours with loved ones. Others decided to stay. Aides to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, for example, scheduled dinner at the Marriott downtown.

"We really wanted to make sure that our staff had some time off before the final push," said Richardson spokeswoman Katie Roberts.

Added Colleen Murray of the Edwards campaign: "We think Iowa caucusgoers and campaign staff are looking forward to relaxing with friends and family before the final push leading up to the caucuses begins on Wednesday."

Not an hour will be wasted between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3. The final stretch of campaigning begins Wednesday morning, with at least six candidates -- Obama, Clinton, Thompson, Huckabee, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- crisscrossing Iowa.

Mosk reported from Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company