Candidates as common as corn in Iowa this summer

[6 July 2007]

By Bob Von Sternberg

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

DES MOINES, Iowa - The clock was creeping toward midnight Monday, but Bill Clinton was still in full grip-and-grin form as he made his way across the lobby of the hotel where he and his wife would spend the night.

“Hey, man, how ya doin’,” he rasped repeatedly. “Great to be here.”

“Here” is Iowa, center of the political universe this week, nearly six months before the precinct caucuses that will formally - and finally - kick off a presidential campaign that has been running at full throttle for months.

The former president, stumping for the first time alongside Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, was the star attraction of the campaign this week. But no fewer than eight candidates, Republicans and Democrats, have been skittering across the state like so many grasshoppers flushed from a corn field.

Among them, they made about 50 appearances this week across the state. The frenzied stumping culminated Wednesday, when candidates appeared at no fewer than 10 July 4th parades.

At a gargantuan event in Clear Lake on the Fourth, the Clintons and Republican front-runner Mitt Romney took to the streets a quarter-mile apart.

“It’s pretty cool they’re all coming through so early,” said Larry Reinsch, a metal fabricator and independent voter from Ames who has shadowed most of the candidates as they have cruised through central Iowa. “But you get tired after awhile. It’s like you have to pick them up and move them out of the way every once in awhile so you can mow your lawn.”

Collectively, the candidates have visited Iowa upwards of 280 times and have been bombarding voters with TV commercials for months. In a state where one-on-one retail politics has long been prized, massive media-savvy events like the Clintons’ rally at the State Fairgrounds on Monday night have come to overshadow more intimate, low-key, campaign appearances.

Romney, the Republicans’ front-runner in Iowa, spent much of his week practicing the traditional brand of Iowa politicking, staging a series of “Ask Mitt Anything” luncheons and coffees across the state. As about 75 residents of Jefferson waited for his arrival Monday afternoon at the Raccoon Bend Golf Club, Peg Junglewaard, 87, reflected on her decades of work on behalf of Republican candidates.

“You get used to entertaining them in your home,” she said. “I’m glad we’re still able to attract them in person. I like Mitt because he seems like a really nice guy who just exudes honesty. But I’m going to wait until I get a chance to meet him.”

When Romney, his wife, Ann, in tow, swept into the clubhouse, Junglewaard’s hand was the first he shook. “Oh, he’s got my vote,” she said. “I like him even more than on TV.”

Before fielding questions that ranged from the softball (“I just want you to know you’re even more handsome in person.”) to the arcane (“What’s your position on the NAFTA highway from Mexico to Canada?”), Romney offered up chunks of his stump speech:

“We need a strong military, and to have that we need a strong economy, and to have that we need strong families,” he said. “My campaign is about strength.”

Candidates who can be fairly described as anything but front-runners were also busy crisscrossing the state this week. Republicans Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, all barely registering in the polls, drew small crowds and modest news media coverage at their appearances.

Brownback, the Kansas senator, held a book signing of his new memoir, “From Power to Purpose,” at a Christian bookstore in Ames.

When one woman commiserated with Brownback about his anemic standing in the race, he told her, “Keep me in your prayers. You can get down about it some days, but prayer will keep you going.”

On the Democratic side, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, two of the party’s so-called second-tier candidates, also stumped their way across the state.

Biden, the senator from Delaware long mentioned as a presidential contender, sat down for lunch Tuesday with about 60 Democrats in Grinnell.

“I’ve been doing this a lot,” he told them, reminding them of his first presidential bid, launched in 1985. “The national press has been following me around on this swing, asking what’s different, and I tell them there’s immense unease about the state of the nation and our place in the world. This national government has failed the American people.”

Biden was making his pitch in a restaurant owned by Kamal Hammouda, who nodded approvingly at the candidate’s words. “He’s a long shot, but he’s got a lot more experience than the two so-called charismatic hotshots,” said Hammouda, who emigrated from Egypt 28 years ago. “I only became a citizen two years ago because of the way the last presidential election went,” he said. “It got me off the pot, and I decided I would either start participating or shut up.”

A few hours later and about 120 miles to the southeast, Lois Crane was readying the lawn of her sprawling clapboard home for another traditional Iowa campaign venue: a house party. Hers was for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaign has begun surging in Iowa as he has become the race’s undisputed champion fundraiser.

“I just want to promote the values of the Democratic Party,” Crane said, emphasizing that she hasn’t aligned herself with any candidate yet. “I’ll do one of these for any candidate. And all of the candidates this time are terrific, so we’ve got a tremendous opportunity this time.”

The one nontraditional aspect of the house party was its size: 300 people spilling across the lawn to hear a variation on Obama’s stump speech about hope, opportunity and the need for Americans to “move our shoulders to the wheel and change American history. We have that chance now.”

When he wrapped up, Obama decided to forgo the question-and-answer session that usually follows his speech, opting instead to shake as many hands and pose for as many pictures as possible (hundreds of times, it turned out). He also took time to riff with some guests. When Joe Desy, a science teacher from Burlington, implored him to reemphasize science if he makes it to the White House, the candidate cracked, “It’s like the people there don’t believe in science anymore. That’s how America was built: facts, reason, pragmatism. Not ideology.

“Thank you,” Desy said. “That answer just swung me over. You’ve got my vote, sir.”

The Clintons’ appearances this week were neither low-key nor intimate. Intricately orchestrated, from flag-bedecked hay bales on flatbeds to fireworks displays, the rallies attracted thousands of supporters and saturation media coverage.

There’s a reason for the high-sparkle campaigning. Sen. Clinton has consistently lagged behind former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the polls and has struggled to stay ahead of Obama.

Although Clinton has been accompanied by her husband at fundraisers, the Iowa rallies marked the first time he had appeared on the trail with her, fueling speculation about whether his masterful stump style would overshadow her.

On Monday night, the crowd’s applause interrupted both Clintons frequently - but it interrupted the former president a bit more often.

Bill Clinton made nice with his wife’s Democratic rivals. “I like the other candidates and have nothing bad to say about anybody. If you want to hear something bad, you’ve got to go somewhere else.”

But he called his wife “by a long stretch the best-qualified non-incumbent we’ve ever had a chance to vote for in my lifetime. ... I would do anything I could to make her president.”

When Hillary Clinton took the stage, she recalled the couple’s decision to skip the Iowa caucuses in 1992. “I’m thrilled to finally be doing something that my husband didn’t do,” she said.

She championed the middle class and the Midwest, reminding the crowd of her Illinois roots: “I’m from middle America, you know.”

After lacerating the Bush administration, she concluded: “I know how hard this job is. I’m honored to be running as a woman candidate, but I’m not running because I’m a woman. I believe I am the best qualified and experienced person running. If you will caucus for me, I will work my heart out for you.”

One of her volunteers, Des Moines resident Kathy Carson, took a break from signing up supporters to listen.

“You can’t beat having the two of them here together,” she said. “It’s so great - you can’t have a better summer night in Iowa than this.”

As Wednesday dawned hot and steamy, Clear Lake Police Chief Greg Peterson guessed as many as 45,000 people had turned out for the town’s parade, mostly drawn by presidential politics. Added Mayor Nelson Crabb: “They couldn’t have picked a better place. Anybody would have loved this attention.”

Waiting for the parade to step off, the Clintons and the Romneys worked the crowd, to shouts of “Bill!” “Mitt!” and the occasional “Hill-A-REE! Hey, thanks for coming out today,” the former president repeated as a mantra.

Suddenly, Romney and his wife, Ann, swung toward the Clintons, whose Secret Service detail parted the crowd. The couples chatted briefly before resuming their marathon handshaking.

“I wanted to make a point of stopping by to say hi,” Romney said. “It’s just the polite thing to do.”

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