- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2007

It’s Iowa, stupid.

That mantra, reminiscent of the Bill Clinton campaign’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” in 1992, could be plastered in the headquarters of every Democrat seeking the presidency.

Candidates who aren’t Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama are operating as if the mantra has a footnote: And national polls, money and notoriety don’t have to matter.

Iowa voters back up that premise.

“Those polls mean absolutely nothing to me at this point,” said Dennis Ryan, an Obama supporter in Onawa. “When you talk to people, it’s clear the polls aren”t picking up on the number of people who are Biden supporters, the number of people who speak highly of Richardson. This is far from being said and done.”

Mr. Ryan, who is helping organize voters in his county on Mr. Obama”s behalf, said every interaction he has with Democrats proves they are far from decided. He also recalled persuading his caucus to support Sen. John Kerry in 2004, which helped propel the Massachusetts Democrat to a surprise first-place finish.

One Democratic staffer noted casually recently that Mr. Kerry raised $1 million within 24 hours of winning the Iowa caucus that year. Another pointed out that their boss would be spending nearly two weeks in Iowa this month.

Others point out the difficulties Mrs. Clinton of New York and Mr. Obama of Illinois have with Iowa retail politics — both have security details that impede their ability to get close to and talk with vast numbers of voters.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware may attract 50 Iowans to his events, but he”ll speak to all 50. For Mrs. Clinton, the crowds are heavy, but she rarely gets a chance to do more than take a few questions, shake a few hands and sign a few autographs. Mr. Obama will linger longer, but security limits his ability to work the crowd.

With fewer than 90 days until the critical caucus, Iowa is where each of the top six Democratic candidates are investing their time and money.

Although national polls have Mrs. Clinton with a solid double-digit lead over her competitors, the race in Iowa is tight. She is locked in a near tie with Mr. Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose surprise second-place finish in Iowa in 2004 transformed him from “other candidate to vice presidential nominee that year.

“I don’t think it”s all locked up by a long shot, at least not here in Iowa,” said Democrat Bruce A. Hoffmeier, a retired school administrator from Newton. “There are a lot of Iowans who are just listening right now and a lot more undecided than those who are sold on a candidate.”

Mrs. Clinton’s front-runner status “might actually be a death knell rather than a blessing,” said Anthony Blessum Sr., a Democrat from Des Moines. “We have a tendency sometimes to root for the underdog. We like people that have to work for it.”

A one-time supporter of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Mr. Blessum has reverted back to his 2004 choice: Mr. Edwards.

However, Mr. Blessum said he is considering a second choice if Mr. Edwards doesn’t reach the needed threshold on caucus night. “Maybe Richardson, and you know, the more I listen to Obama the more I like him.

“I will not vote for another East Coast liberal,” he vowed.

Mr. Biden drove the point home today, securing an endorsement from Iowa state Rep. McKinley Bailey, 26, an Iraq war veteran. The support from Mr. Bailey, the youngest member of the state legislature, brings to 11 Mr. Biden’s endorsements from Iowa legislators.

The National Journal’s ranking of the 2008 Democrats last week placed him in a tie for fourth place with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and called him a potential dark horse, partly because of his superior performance in debates.

“In fact, maybe Biden has earned the right to be ranked ahead of Richardson. … If there is a dark horse who could be taken seriously as a threat to the first tier, it’s Biden now, not Richardson,” the report noted.

Mr. Biden returns to Iowa tomorrow for his third trip to the state this month.

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Richardson have been in Iowa in the past week. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, who is on a nine-day swing through the state, recently reshuffled his campaign staff to boost his Iowa presence.

For the major contenders, the state holds major significance. A poor showing here in January could end a candidacy, and a surprise second or third place may mean the difference between being an also-ran and someone with momentum.

Republican candidate Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said this week that he would drop out should he place badly in Iowa, but no Democratic candidate has made such a promise. Given the number of undecided voters, the candidates have plenty of time to make their case.

Mr. Hoffmeier said he won’t make a decision until the winter and wants a nominee who can beat the Republicans in November 2008.

“That’s one of the concerns we have about Hillary,” he said. “There are many people who like her but many more who don’t because she’s a woman or because she’s a Clinton, and we’re concerned about that.”

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