OTTUMWA, IOWA—Over a Coke in the historic Hotel Ottumwa's Second Street Cafe, Bob Beisch smiles slyly when asked to compare the on-the-ground campaigns of the Democrats' top three presidential candidates.
"Now, just who are you calling the top three?" counters Beisch, 69, the party's Wapello County chairman, who had lunched earlier with the wife of Sen. Christopher Dodd, a well-liked contender but not on anyone's short list.
Beisch is joking, sort of. In Iowa's caucuses, scheduled for January 14 (the date is still a moving target), anything is possible. But it's the dead-heat battle of the titans here that is captivating the state. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both awash in cash, and former Sen. John Edwards, who has far less in the bank but has spent four years courting voters here, have poured time, sweat, and money into Iowa since the spring. They have, by most accounts, equally organized and aggressive field operations that each boast more than 100 paid staffers. Among them, they've opened 67—and counting—field offices and by late September had collectively visited the state 78 times since late 2004.
Showdown. The stakes in Iowa are always high. But this year, with Clinton solidifying an aura of inevitability with big leads in new national polls and top third-quarter fundraising totals, they are monumental. If Clinton takes an Iowa win into the primary in New Hampshire, where she has a double-digit lead, and then on to other primary states where she's also atop the polls, the White House dreams of Edwards and Obama could wither here amid the coffee shops and cornfields.
But consider this: Polls have shown a tight race among the three leading contenders, and a crucial 15 percent of Iowa Democrats say they haven't yet made up their minds. "That's why I get up at 4:30 every day," says Teresa Vilmain, Clinton's Iowa director. On caucus night, it's about getting supporters to show up in classrooms and rented halls with neighbors and friends and declare their loyalty. Campaigns are already calculating how many warm bodies they'll need to meet the threshold for each delegate awarded at the caucuses. And they're making contingency plans for the horse-trading that can turn second choices into victors. What may happen, says Clinton supporter Bonnie Eggers, is that candidates like Dodd, Sen. Joseph Biden, and Gov. Bill Richardson will have supporters but not enough to capture a delegate. "And then you make deals to bring them to your candidate," she says. Do they want to serve on the platform committee? Be a delegate to the state convention? That puts campaigns in the position of not only fighting to win but also angling to be the second choice of fans of weaker candidates. (The mantra now in Iowa, says one campaign staffer, is: "Don't p—- anybody off.")
The jockeying is intense in this Democratic city of 25,000, a traditional labor stronghold that has struggled with poverty, illegal immigration, and methamphetamine addiction. The party's populist message, most pointedly delivered by Edwards, resonates here; Democrats in Wapello County outnumber Republicans 10,733 to 4,182. All three of the top Democratic candidates have field offices here. "This is a big Democratic area," says Dave McMillin, 58, a retired letter carrier and county cochair for the Edwards campaign. "There are people upset about NAFTA, healthcare, the war. We have a National Guard unit in Ottumwa and in Fairfield that's going back to Iraq for a second time."
Favored son. For John Edwards to succeed, "he's going to have to take this area like he did last time," adds McMillin, outside Edwards's office at 611 Church Street, a tough stretch of town just west of the Des Moines River. If there's a favorite son in this race, it's the former senator from North Carolina, who surged in 2004 to finish second to John Kerry in the caucuses. Democrats here like Edwards's personal campaigning style and that he wears jeans like the locals, Beisch says. His biggest asset is that although his early-year status as front-runner has eroded, he has maintained a loyal base from four years ago, was the first to establish beachheads in all 99 counties, and knows that come caucus night, his people will show up. But Edwards recently said he would accept public campaign money, a possible sign of weakness, and the question remains: Will voters choose someone who has not shown much strength outside Iowa?
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."