- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2004

DUBUQUE, Iowa — Not since the Iowa caucuses began in 1972 has the race here come down to the last pancake flip, but four Democratic candidates are neck and neck heading into the crucial vote tomorrow.

This state, with just 1 percent of the total U.S. population, once again will be the first test of the national gantlet that will produce the party’s presidential nominees. Recent polls show any of four Democrats can leave here a winner.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who had been leading, have been joined by Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina as possible winners.

“On Monday, we’re going to shock the world,” Mr. Edwards told campaign workers in Des Moines yesterday before heading to Dubuque, a city of about 60,000 on the west bank of the Mississippi, where he wooed voters at the Dubuque County Democrats’ presidential-candidate forum.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dean campaigned in the western part of the state before flying to Georgia, where he is expected today to pick up support — though not an endorsement — from former President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Carter’s support is just the latest twist in a campaign where front-runners have emerged and faltered, and it all comes down to whose followers actually show up tomorrow.

“We’re going to find out if we can convert this incredible grass-roots effort into votes,” Mr. Dean told a crowd in Council Bluffs.

Jim Waller, a Dubuque County supervisor who is still trying to decide among Mr. Dean, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt, said that’s what makes the caucuses so valuable.

“Iowans get to meet all the candidates. In that sense, it’s what you call grass-roots politics,” he said.

The candidates have visited each of the 99 counties in the state, some of them many times, and Mr. Waller said any Iowa voter who wanted to meet a candidate in person can do so.

“It’s really the principle of subsidiarity — the lower down the decisions is made, the more humane it is,” said Ann E. Michalski, a City Council member in Dubuque. “This gets it as close to the people as it can possibly be.”

Caucuses also lend themselves to better-educated voters than broader elections, she said. Of about 600,000 registered Democrats in the state, only about one in five is expected to show up.

“Nobody goes to a caucus who isn’t well-informed,” Mrs. Michalski said.

Iowa’s position as the first caucus is written into the Democratic Party rules, and though it’s not enshrined in Republican rules, it is part of that party’s tradition as well. New Hampshire traditionally holds the first primary, and this year, it is scheduled for Jan. 27.

Not everyone is thrilled with Iowa’s position. The District this year tried to hold the first primary, but the Democratic Party balked and city Democrats settled for a nonbinding primary, which Mr. Dean won last week.

Iowa’s demographics don’t match the rest of the nation, either. Of the nearly 3 million residents, 93 percent are white.

However, Mr. Waller said Iowa is representative of a lot of America because it has farming, manufacturing and major financial businesses, such as insurance companies.

And Iowans said their smaller state allows candidates and voters the one-on-one contact that helps both the national vetting process and the candidates themselves.

Mrs. Michalski recalled meeting Mr. Edwards at an event early in the campaigns, and she asked him about his position on the existing U.S. ban on trade with Cuba. She said he told her he didn’t want to answer that question, and that, she said, cost him any chance of gaining her support. She is now a committed Kerry supporter.

“I think that a few months into his campaign, he would have answered that question,” she said. “I think they’re better when they leave Iowa than when they got here.”

The caucuses themselves are a two-step process. Democrats show up at the local caucus site — usually a school or church — and are asked to stand with other supporters of their candidate.

If a candidate has less than 15 percent at a precinct, his supporters are disbanded and they either join another candidate’s supporters or join the group of uncommitted delegates. Those results are then reported.

Iowa’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston will be divided among the candidates, based on their statewide totals.

In the latest Zogby-Reuters-MSNBC poll, Mr. Kerry led with 22.6 percent to Mr. Dean’s 22.1 percent, Mr. Gephardt’s 19.1 percent and Mr. Edwards’ 17.9 percent.

The poll of 503 voters likely to attend an Iowa caucus was taken Wednesday through Friday and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Wesley Clark, a retired Army general from Arkansas, decided not to participate in the caucuses.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who came in second in the District’s nonbinding primary last week, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio also are competing. Mr. Sharpton has not campaigned in Iowa this week, but Mr. Kucinich was in the state yesterday, telling voters at Dubuque’s forum he is “the Seabiscuit of the race” and promising to surge “from the back of the pack.”

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