In an effort to engage his 3-year-old daughter, Hanna, in politics, Sgt. Matthew Welsh of the Cedar Rapids Police Department likes to quiz her about the candidates running for president.
He asks her, "Who is George Bush?" and "Who is John Kerry?"
And she replies, "Daddy, I approve this message."
Like many Iowa toddlers weaned on heapings of campaign ads, Hanna is precocious when it comes to reciting federally mandated boilerplate. This reflects Iowa's status as the first state to hold presidential caucuses and the degree to which it has become a targeted mud pit this fall -- with all the negative ads, voter burnout and Hollywood fuss that seven contested electoral votes will get you.
"You can't get away from it these days, even if you try," says Welsh, who is standing by a mob waiting to enter the U.S. Cellular Center for a Kerry rally earlier this week. The event -- Kerry's second stop in Iowa on this day and his fourth in less than three weeks -- has gridlocked traffic over several blocks of downtown. The same general area was shut down a day earlier when Vice President Cheney came to the adjacent Crowne Plaza hotel, which was surrounded by massive road graders to protect against a terrorist attack.
A few feet from where Welsh stands, Jon Bon Jovi is slipping out of an SUV and into a back entrance for the arena. He performed four songs before Kerry spoke and then joined Leonardo DiCaprio at a John Edwards rally in Indianola. Kerry is supposed to be in Des Moines today. Cheney was in Sioux City on Thursday. Bush held a rally in Dubuque on Tuesday night, his sixth visit to the state in October, and is scheduled to be in Des Moines and Sioux City on Monday. Caroline Kennedy, Ashton Kutcher, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Edwards came to Iowa for Kerry this week.
Candidates and their surrogates are also blitzing Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and other bitterly contested battleground states. But Iowans are different, or at least believe they are.
Elected officials, activists and voters here evince a sense of nostalgia for the caucuses campaign -- for its intimate venues, civil tone and relative innocence. The Democratic nominee has carried Iowa in each election since 1988, including Al Gore, who won by 4,144 votes, or an average of two votes per precinct, in 2000. Bush and Kerry are running dead heats in final-week polls here.
But there is clear voter consensus on this recurring theme: "I'll be glad when this is all over," says Mel Campbell, a retired engineer who has lived in the Cedar Rapids suburb of Marion since 1959. "This is all way too severe for me. I'm saturated to a point where I've turned them all off."
Campbell is standing at a table at the Maid-Rite restaurant in downtown Marion, which features delectable sloppy Joes (known locally as loose meat sandwiches). He commiserates with two friends: Vic Klopfenstein, a retired veterinarian who is supporting Bush, and Charlie Kress, a retired engineer who is supporting Kerry. Kress says he longs for the relative "fun" and "niceness" of the caucus season.
Klopfenstein, who served as mayor of Marion for 16 years, says he is awed by the late-season attention his state is getting. "It's like the World Series and the Super Bowl coming to town," he says, and goes on to describe the tenor of this spectacle as "just pathetic," particularly the infestation of ads he has suffered via TV, radio, blast e-mail and mechanized phone calls. "It's been a long haul for us here in Iowa, about two years of this," he says. "Politics shouldn't be as do-or-die as it is for these guys. We're for our candidates vehemently, but it's nothing to get so bitter about."
Several people say the harsh volleys between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, and the degree to which it has been imposed on Iowa, has poisoned discourse at the grass roots.
"I think people long to talk to their neighbors again," says Craig Campbell, a 49-year-old Marion native who runs a small art gallery a few doors down from the Maid-Rite. "It's become like a civil war here." He sums up the situation as "not good."
Campbell says the ugliness of the general election campaign makes him question the purity of the caucuses. "When I look back on the caucus," he says, "I wonder if it's not this comfy facade, to give us the illusion that grass roots democracy really works."
Campbell supported Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the caucuses last January and won't say whom he's voting for on Tuesday, only that he discerns no great difference between Kerry and Bush other than their heights. He met Kerry at a party in Marion last year at the home of state Rep. Swati Dandekar. He was not planning to go see the Massachusetts senator speak in Cedar Rapids.
"Jon Bon Jovi's gonna be there, for chrissakes," Campbell says. "Like that's a reason for me to go see John Kerry?"
Like New Hampshirites, Iowans love to hear about their state's outsize influence in the presidential race. At the rally in Cedar Rapids, Kerry is doing the old-home-week routine in the state that gave him an upset win last January and launched him toward the Democratic nomination. "For me, Iowa has always been heaven," Kerry tells the crowd of 9,500 cheering people. He calls himself "practically a resident," and ridicules Bush for a recent statement in which he called the state "the hinterlands."
"I've been in your barns, in your VFW halls, your bowling alleys and your hospitals," Kerry says. "Iowa is not the hinterlands. Iowa is the heartland of America."
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack rejects the premise that there is a big difference between Iowa's caucuses campaign and the general election race. Both, he says, place a premium on person-to-person contact, a well-run "ground game" and success at getting supporters out to vote. "Iowans by nature are not confrontational," Vilsack says, "and anything that makes them confrontational might make them uneasy."
"We have never seen anything like these last few weeks in Iowa," says David Roederer, state chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, at an appearance by former first lady Barbara Bush in Des Moines. All the attention Iowa receives from presidential candidates, "probably inflates our ego more than it should," but he adds that it "beats the alternative, which is being ignored."
Or does it?
Scott Cross says he can't wait until Election Day because it will make for good television, "the culmination of a national drama." Cross, who is working behind the counter of Zoey's Pizzeria in Marion, calls himself a political junkie and a political independent. He is rooting hard for Kerry, as well as for something else:
"I just hope this all really ends on Tuesday," he says.