"It's your political operative from the land of corn," said the baritone voice on the phone. "Golly gosh, Bob Levey, you never call, you never write . . ."
"Ladies and jelly beans, it's Jim the Temperature Taker!" I blurted. "Gosh, I've been meaning to call you . . ."
"That's okay, Bob," Jim said. "We're finally in touch, and it's on my nickel, saints be praised. I thought I'd treat you to the latest political tea-leaf reading from the great state of Iowa."
Jim and I first did this drill -- for the benefit of Bob Levey's Washington readers -- a little more than a year ago. Even though the 2004 presidential campaign was two years away at that time, Jim was kind enough to get in touch.
He is a top county Democratic official in a state that everyone will be watching very closely in a very short time. As a result, we infidels who don't live in the Corn Belt are about to get an early heads-up on who looks good in Iowa, who looks lukewarm and who looks DOA.
Jim and I met 35 years ago, when he was a young Democratic staff member for a Capitol Hill committee. I was a bewildered young scribe with one pair of pants -- that didn't fit.
I was trying to make sense of the House. Jim took a shine to me. I reciprocated.
He soon left, first for law school and later for a position with a small firm in a small Iowa city. More detail than that he doesn't wish to give, for fear that he would make someone out there mad. But he had a lot to say, via me, "to Washington, that city of political rumors and surges." I wrote down every word.
In tabular form, here's Jim's morning line analysis of the 2004 Democratic presidential contenders:
"Sen. John Kerry: Has the potential to win here. His stance against the war in Vietnam is still seen as very courageous. But he will have to get off the fence on which he's sitting and take a strong position about the war in Iraq -- one way or the other. He is seen as very effective and very intriguing.
"Sen. Joseph Lieberman: Looked better three months ago than he does today. Not clear that he's a leader. Not clear that he's passionate enough. Not clear that he has escaped the shadow of Al Gore, even though that isn't fair. Not clear that he has fresh, new ideas. He could begin to slip and then slip very far, very quickly.
"Rep. Dick Gephardt: My choice to win the Democratic caucuses if you put a gun to my head. He hasn't changed many of his bedrock ideas -- and that always plays well here. He has a way of focusing naturally on the little guy, which seems a little forced from the other candidates. He will raise as much money as anyone, and maybe more. And if he needs an extra 3 percent at the very end, he'll get it because he's from right down the road in Missouri.
"Sen. John Edwards: A guy I know calls him Senator Who? That pretty much sums it up. I see him as a possible horse in 2008. For now, he's a mere pony.
"Rep. Dennis Kucinich: Not known, not going to get known. Such a dark horse that you can't even see him.
"Al Sharpton: I hate to say 'no chance' about any candidate. But he's the guy who makes 'no chance' look like optimism.
"Carol Moseley Braun: Even less of a chance.
"Gov. Howard Dean: The funny thing about Iowa is that it likes a plain-talking, idiosyncratic, cage-rattling, non-establishment candidate even more than New Hampshire does. If the war is a disaster, or a quagmire, Dean and only Dean can say he told us so. But he will be attacked for his lack of big-game experience, and for that reason, he may be seen as a guy who can't beat Bush.
"Sen. Bob Graham: The sleeper in the lot. A grownup in an era when the Democratic Party could sure use one. A very experienced, very solid person with a serious track record. Okay, so he's not a rock star. If he can raise enough money, and if his health is good enough, he could really win out here."
I asked Jim if Al Gore would be leading the pack if he were in the race. Jim uttered a word that will never appear in any legal dictionary.
I asked Jim if a surprise candidate might steal into Iowa at the last minute and grab the pot -- someone like a general, a business leader, a university president. Jim said he hated to think that big money already had limited the field -- but that was the bitter truth.
I asked him about the junior senator from New York, her Hillaryness. "She'll be a major contender in 2008, and she could be a major contender this time, too," said Jim. "We expect a particularly strong turnout among younger voters, and she's very popular with them. But it's obvious that she isn't going to go for it this time around."
Can any of these people beat George W. Bush?
"It's far too soon to say," Jim said. "But I think he's more vulnerable on the economy and on health insurance for senior citizens than he is on the war. People seem to be very uneasy about him -- even people who voted for him twice in 2000, once in the caucuses and once in the general election. He gets big points for being a regular fella. He gives back a lot of those points because he doesn't seem to sense what middle-class Americans are going through these days."
I asked Jim if I could check back with him later this year.
He said I could. "And maybe you'll even pay for that next call," he said, half-pleadingly.
I told him that he had been around politics far too long to hope for miracles.
To contact Bob Levey:
By U.S. mail: Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.
By phone: 202-334-7276.
By fax: 202-334-5150.
By e-mail: email@example.com