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Iowa's Show Goes On, Mostly Without Iowans

Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, right, meets some of Iowa's real folks at a campaign stop in Pella.
Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, right, meets some of Iowa's real folks at a campaign stop in Pella. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

DES MOINES, Jan. 1

It was the quintessential Iowa caucus scene: Supporters of Republican and Democratic candidates sat at Buzzard Billy's bar, holding campaign signs and chatting amiably. Democratic hopeful Bill Richardson shook hands, giving the Iowa voters the one-on-one attention they expect.

"It's all grass roots here in Iowa," said the New Mexico governor, wearing galoshes and cotton chinos. "It's not big media, big technology."

Cut!

Actually, Governor, it is big media and big technology. The event was put together by CNN. The supporters in the crowd were mostly from out of state, sent here by the campaigns at the cable network's invitation to serve as a backdrop for the live shots.

And the whole thing was being broadcast by the CNN Election Express bus, parked outside Buzzard Billy's and carrying equipment worth more than $1 million: four-path HD satellite transmission, random access digital video server, LED studio lights, 12 high-definition TVs, a 42-inch plasma set, and, of course, an onboard shower and makeup table.

With the caucuses now two days away, all Iowa's a stage, and all its men and women merely players. "That's the joke of Iowa," said Justin Berkley, an Iowa native and the bar's general manager. "Everyone wants to picture us as an episode of 'Hee Haw,' sitting at the counter in the diner or out in the cornfield."

For the most part, the locals -- at least the politically active ones -- play along. "The beauty of it is, the rest of the year, everyone will try so hard to be metropolitan, and for four weeks every four years we try darn hard to be hicks," Berkley said.

His phrase for the Iowans' playacting: "the full-on hokey."

To paraphrase John Edwards, there are two Iowas. One is in the popular imagination, where the locals care passionately about their caucus and talk earnestly with presidential prospects in their living rooms. Then there's the actual Iowa, where most people are indifferent and a small band of the politically active act as extras in the media's stories from the heartland.

Iowans' participation in the caucuses is notorious: 6 percent of eligible voters showed up in the 2004 Democratic caucuses -- translating to about 125,000 people. If that number got much lower, voters might be outnumbered by the thousands of journalists, campaign staffers and volunteers who crowd Des Moines's hotels, flights and restaurants, reading tea leaves to divine what the small minority of Iowa voters will do on Thursday.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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