An Odd Couple With Big Influence

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

GRUNDY CENTER, Iowa -- Two states guard the campaign trail as though they own it. Their influence on national politics is wildly disproportionate to their modest populations. Neither has anything that could be called a large city, or a slum, or a sprawling suburb. Both are dotted with small towns where everyone knows everyone else. One is very white, the other whiter still.

Iowa and New Hampshire have defied all predictions of their impending obsolescence. By the time Iowans finish caucusing Thursday and New Hampshirites vote in their primary five days later, the course of the 2008 presidential race may have been shaped, before many people in 48 other states have even paid much attention.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D), whose own state of Michigan tried to edge its way into the early primary picture this year, has dismissed New Hampshire's longstanding role in the primary process as "cockamamie." And it's easy to understand the jealousy the rest of the country feels over the attention lavished on voters there and in Iowa.

In Grundy Center, for example, a farming community in northeast Iowa with a population just a hair over 2,500 (98.8 percent non-Hispanic white), presidential candidates have pulled into town to make stump speeches 13 times, according to a recent tally by the Des Moines Register.

When challenged, leaders in both Iowa and New Hampshire respond with one voice, citing tradition and the dedication of their citizens as justification for their special role. But beyond their status as campaign-trail behemoths, Iowa and New Hampshire have little in common.

As is apparent to any candidate or strategist or journalist shuttling from Manchester to Des Moines and back (flying over such temporarily irrelevant places as Ohio and Illinois), the two states are about as similar as ethanol and granola. As dirt and granite. As a John Deere tractor and a moose.

There is the recurring linear/bent, flat/rugged, dull/eccentric distinction. Iowa is a place where the relatively flat terrain has been graded and plowed and laser-leveled even flatter on behalf of industrial agriculture. From the air it is a checkerboard, defined by "sections" platted long before humans busted the prairie sod. Amid the corn and soybeans, the occasional human structure pokes up like a jimson weed.

New Hampshire, by contrast, is heavily warped and woofed. It is full of mountain hollows and tumbling streams and roads that refuse to go in a straight line.

Iowa, as any campaign strategist quickly discovers, is physically a much bigger state (23rd largest in size, 30th in population). The caucus formula gives weight to small counties, meaning a typical Iowa campaign trip takes a candidate to places that haven't had a nonpolitical tourist since the 1800s. Most people in New Hampshire (44th largest in size, 41st in population) live in the southern part of the state within screaming distance of one another.

Iowa has monocultures (corn, soybeans, evangelical Christians), while New Hampshire has micro-cultures (dairy farmers, factory workers, college professors, art colony inhabitants, Slow Food advocates, lumberjacks, commuters to Boston).

Iowa's farmers and evangelicals are potentially huge voting blocs. In New Hampshire there are no voting blocs, and citizens have such an independent streak that a candidate would be lucky to carry all the registered voters in any particular household.

Some Iowans think their system is superior. Bob Brinton, city attorney in the town of Clarion, says caucuses are "much better" than a primary because people have to get up in front of their friends and neighbors and take a stand. A caucus doesn't involve "indifferent people who don't give a damn anyway," he says.

"This is completely different," said Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and Democratic presidential candidate, one day recently in Des Moines. "This is about organization -- this is about identifying your supporters in advance and making sure they come to the caucuses."

New Hampshire considers itself first on the electoral calendar because it holds a secret-ballot primary. Jim Splaine, a New Hampshire state legislator, is blunt when he speaks of the Iowa way of doing things: "That's not a real election."

'Iowa Nice'

On a recent day in Grundy Center, host of more campaign events per capita than any town in Iowa, according to the Register, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) appeared at the high school alongside a bunch of generals who vouched for her as the future commander in chief.

Listening carefully was Calvin Kiewiet, 67, the maintenance manager at a senior center. He's lived in Grundy Center all his life and has never been "out East," he said. He said when he leaves Iowa he finds that people aren't as friendly. Iowans are good folks, he said. "They're churchgoing, dependable. If they tell you something, shake your hand, it's going to be done."

What you hear repeatedly in Iowa is that people want a candidate who is down to earth, honest, a straight shooter, "real." They want someone who has some warmth.

Terry Branstad, a Republican former Iowa governor, said recently that he met with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) early in the campaign cycle and offered some advice: "I suggested one of the best things he would do is bring his wife and children here and go to every county in Iowa. This is a very family-oriented state. They want to see the family. They want to know you're real. They want to see you up close and personal."

There's actually a phrase, Branstad said, that captures the Iowa personality: "Iowa nice." It's been in circulation recently among pundits who have complained that presidential debates in Iowa have been a little too tepid. No candidate wants to alienate all those Iowa-nice Iowans.

Just up another straight-as-string Iowa road from Grundy Center is the town of Dike. Wayne Paige, a former mayor, was born there 74 years ago and insists it was "a buzzer of a town," a snappy place with lots of grocery stores and a hotel and a pool room and not one but two barber shops. Not much of that is left. Dike has 944 residents, as of the last census, but Paige seems to be the only person visible on the sidewalks downtown.

He'd heard Republican Mike Huckabee that morning at a nearby golf club. Paige, who was born again at the age of 32 while listening to a preacher on the radio, likes Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, a lot. Paige says the biggest problem facing the country is "scriptural ignorance."

He still loves it here. Life is so simple in Dike. People are nice. Another word comes into his mind as well.

"A little gullible," Paige says. "They expect everybody they talk to is going to tell 'em the facts."

'More Direct'

In New Hampshire, candidates often find themselves on the spot.

"I think they're a little more direct here," John McCain said as he prepared to shake hands in a Concord tavern.

New Hampshirites, told from birth that they have a special role in politics, don't think twice about asking a pointed question. One day recently in the mountain town of Lebanon, a woman stood up at an Edwards speech and said, "John Edwards: Look me in the eye and tell me what you're going to do to get us out of Iraq."

He obeyed.

A moment later, another woman rose.

"Why should I vote for you?" she asked.

Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, started to answer, but she interrupted him with an explanation of her thought process.

"Why, from the Democratic candidates, should I vote for you?"

He began to answer but again was interrupted.

"What makes you different?"

The folks in New Hampshire are a tough sell. They're notoriously undecided until the last minute. Nearly half the state is registered as independent; many voters at this very second don't know whether they'll vote in the Democratic or the Republican primary. You get the sense that they're not going to vote for a candidate whom they've met only four or five times.

"It takes a while to get accepted around here," says Doug Moran, a McCain supporter who hosted a house party for the Republican senator from Arizona recently. "It's not the Midwest, open hand, open face, 'Welcome to our community.' "

Most of all, New Hampshire is heterogeneous, which is to say, it's a mistake to make any sweeping generalization about it. The hill people are descendants of the original Yankee stock. To the far north are people of the woods. On the seacoast are liberals who floated up from Boston; in the southwest corner are crunchy-granola towns that are spiritually in tune with Vermont.

The state doesn't seem to have anything like a common culture, a dominant industry or a singularly powerful political figure.

"It's a series of city-states," says Abigail Abrash Walton, who teaches advocacy and organizing at Antioch University in Keene.

In New Hampshire, a candidate will try to peel off the independent voters who can vote in either party's primary. In Iowa, candidates are more likely to play to the party base.

"You're speaking to progressive Democrats in Iowa," Vilsack said. "You're speaking arguably to the entire state in New Hampshire."

'The Epicenter'

"Iowa nice" may in fact come from "State Fair," the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which is set at the Iowa State Fairgrounds just east of Des Moines, probably the foremost photo-op location for presidential candidates.

One night this fall, the Polk County Democrats held a $25-a-ticket dinner and auction there in a nondescript building called the Walnut Center. The room was jammed with partisans, politicians, a senator, a former governor.

Everyone hit the buffet, where steak and chicken were piled high on steam trays. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) showed up, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), and various proxies of other presidential candidates. Finally, just before 9 p.m., Clinton, the national front-runner, arrived, and she could not have acted more thrilled to be back in Iowa and back at the state fairgrounds.

The senator recalled how last summer she flipped pork chops and ate a Wonder Bar and saw the cow made entirely from butter.

The Polk County Democrats, she said, are "the epicenter of the Democratic Party, therefore the epicenter of America, therefore the epicenter of the world!"

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