Harvesting Candidates, and Taking Its Own Sweet Time

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

DES MOINES -- In a land of corn and caucuses, where harvests are measured by bushels and buzz, the presidential campaigns march through the seasons in a curious rite of persuasion. First comes biography, then policy and, finally, a political pitch calibrated to the shifting climate.

The tone reflects the pace and priorities of an electorate that will not be rushed. An unusually fervid batch of candidates spending an unprecedented sum of money have been forced to sweat this year as Iowans take their sweet time deciding.

That's how it could happen, one sunny autumn afternoon in central Iowa, that Michelle Obama could do everything but invite a prospective supporter to supper and still not walk away with a commitment. Obama spent 30 minutes talking her way through a careful portrait of her husband and lingered long enough to greet anyone with a question.

A 50-something woman who lived on a nearby farm said she was impressed. But no, she was sorry, she would not feel comfortable pledging to support Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Not until she had met him.

Politics tend to work that way in Iowa during caucus time. It is a state with almost exactly one one-hundredth of the U.S. population and considerably more of its political significance and sophistication. For reasons that elude the proverbial experts, only a small fraction -- sometimes as few as 10 percent -- of registered voters actually show up on the designated winter night to stand up for their candidate. This may have something to do with the temperature, for the January air tends toward freezing whatever the mercury in the political sphere.

Optimists estimate that more than 150,000 Democrats and perhaps 80,000 Republicans will caucus this year, when the night is expected to be cold but snowless. As more than one wag in dissed and distant states has pointed out, this means that 0.08 percent of Americans will decide who leaves the Plains with the best chance to become president and who barely escapes at all.

Asked whether anything ought to change, Iowans tend to shrug off the suggestion.

Iowa, which surely is the political term for "heartland," is a warm temporary home for hundreds of young campaign workers from New Jersey and Massachusetts, Nebraska and Colorado. They camp out for months, studying the terrain and the traditions. Staffers in union towns know not to drive foreign cars. Workers in Ames learn never to confuse Iowa State with the University of Iowa.

Cyclones and Hawkeyes don't mix.

The Republican race seemed for months a one-man Mitt Romney show, as the former Massachusetts governor invested heavily in time and organization. While Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani chased their political dreams elsewhere, obscure former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee spent little and organized less, but stormed into the lead just weeks before the caucuses.

None of the trailing Democrats managed a similar move in a race defined by a distinctive trio at the top. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama are aiming to make history, while former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards (N.C.) is waging a populist fight to be the spoiler.

After placing second in Iowa in 2004, Edwards seemingly never left.

He has spent the most time of any candidate in the state, and his support appears the firmest. The question for the former trial lawyer is whether he can rise above his opponents in the campaign's final days.

There has been much talk on all sides of steady hands and needed change, with candidates in both parties more often delving into specifics on proxy questions such as taxes and corporate responsibility and the ripe issue of health care.

Iowans struck a dissonant chord early on the Iraq war, which has cost the state nearly 50 troops, a number larger than it sounds when it is multiplied by the relatives and friends -- and shopkeepers, teachers and neighbors -- who remember their smiles. The distaste for the war is thorough, and no major candidate is fighting the trend.

Iowa produces more corn, soybeans and pigs than any state in the union, and also a lot of windows, tires, chemicals and appliances. Business is mostly good, although the October shutdown of the Maytag plant in Newton drew attention -- and plenty of political positioning. Gloom and doom has not been a big campaign seller this year, nor have pure economic issues.

With the corn long harvested and yard signs sprouting in the snow, politics is the state's business and its sport for another day yet. The undecided voters who engage and madden the candidates will finally make up their minds or stay home. By Friday's dawn, the caravan will be gone, till the next presidential planting season.

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