Hawkeye Hoedown

For Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, the stakes in Iowa may be higher than ever

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Bonnie Eggers packs her car outside the Clinton office in Ottumwa.

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At Clinton's East Second Street office recently, volunteer Helen Epperson, 68, is on the phone reading a healthcare script to a 79-year-old newlywed, who pledged her support and that of her husband. "Oh, you tell him what to do?" Epperson asks with a laugh. Four other staffers and volunteers are fielding calls and scanning bar codes on voter call lists into the computer. Eggers, 54, pins on a "Bill Clinton for First Dude" button. "Bill is nothing but an asset," she says. While her opponents' offices look like rumpled college dorm rooms, Clinton's quarters resemble the dean of admissions' office. On the counter are lollipops and healthy plants. A 1972 Life magazine cover featuring New York Rep. Bella Abzug, headlined "Women in Politics," hangs on the wall.

Detractors and admirers describe the Clinton effort here as a careful, grind-it-out machine, averse to grand gestures or direct engagement with opponents. The efficiency is largely due to Iowa native Vilmain, who took over the state operation in June during a controversy about a leaked staff memo suggesting that Clinton consider not competing here. Vilmain, who first came to prominence working for Michael Dukakis during the 1988 Iowa caucuses, is "by far" the No. 1 field organizer in the state, says one political insider. Her state operation has held campaign kickoffs in all 99 counties, has canvassed in 83, and plans to hold house parties and organizing events in all of the state's 1,784 precincts. It also will stage mock caucuses to train newcomers.

"I can't suggest that any of this is overly creative. We're just maniacally focused on organization, testing, and dry runs. Who wants to have a flake factor on caucus night?" says Vilmain, who came on board a few months after Clinton received what some have called the one endorsement that matters: that of popular former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who had abandoned his own presidential aspirations. The Clinton campaign also believes history is on its side. The majority of caucusgoers in the past have been women over the age of 50, and that's the demographic Clinton is attracting in disproportionate numbers.

But at Obama headquarters in Des Moines, state director Paul Tewes, caucus manager for Vice President Al Gore in 2000, asserts that conventional wisdom won't hold in January. "There are myths about all of this," he says. "But the No. 1 is that the same people go to caucuses every time." Obama's Iowa strategy is based in part on the assumption that captivated young people who have been flocking to his rallies can be converted into reliable caucusgoers.

"I agree that in the past the average age of caucusgoers skews in the mid-50s," Tewes says. "But young people are not a burden. They're a good challenge." It was a challenge that Howard Dean's youth-based campaign failed in 2004, melting down spectacularly by caucus time. But Tewes says comparisons to the Obama campaign don't hold up. "Most people came into Howard Dean's camp out of anger over all those senators voting for this crazy war," he says. "People come to Barack for a very different reason: hope. It's a much more enduring emotion and much more powerful."

J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll, respected as the most reliable predictor of caucus outcomes, says that two factors suggest that Obama's support is shallow. "He does better than average with younger voters and independents," Selzer says. "Those are not the people who, in the past, have shown up on caucus night." The "if" factor, she says, is whether Obama can manage to "herd the cats," getting supporters lined up and trained before the caucuses. Independents who want to participate can register as Democrats caucus night. But even if Obama or Edwards pulls out an Iowa win, she says, "do you have enough time and money to work that bounce?"

Tewes insists it's impossible to predict who will show up caucus night. "Barack doesn't fit the normal mode, so all the normal modes of measuring are out the window," he says. "What does this inspiration turn into?" In less than three months, that question will be answered by caucusgoers like the ones in Wapello County. "People here are still looking," says Beisch's wife, Judy, the party's county secretary. "It is not over."