By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Fresh off the chopper, he showed up in the gritty town of Fort Dodge — the gypsum-mining capital of America — in his pressed chinos and navy-blue blazer, his blood pressure and pulse rate seemingly unfazed by the breakneck helicopter run over the frosty plains. A crowd of about 100 patiently awaited him in a community-college cafeteria bereft of any students. I could only identify four or five supporters in the room who were under 50 years old.
The 60-year-old candidate fit right in. To a round of applause he slowly walked into the room and methodically shook some hands, rationed out a few tentative hugs and began a rather meandering stump speech.
Yet, it seemed to connect. The man’s obvious intelligence provides wide margins for his less-than-stellar public-speaking skills. Kerry’s pitch is his r√©sum√©, his experience, his presidential gravitas. In deftly and richly capitalizing on his well-deserved war-hero status, Kerry devised what turned out to be a brilliantly successful formula for taking Iowa. If Gephardt banked on organized labor to get out the vote, and Dean on his volunteer crusade (and a different set of unions), then Kerry appealed directly to Iowa’s small army of 90,000 military veterans. He assembled a “Veteran’s Brigade” that relentlessly rang the doorbells and worked the phone banks. Activists from firefighter unions across the country also enlisted in his campaign.
They all responded hungrily to Kerry’s incessant pitch, that only he among the Democratic candidates had any credibility or believability on military and security issues. Indeed, only when Kerry reached this portion of his stump speech did he seem to become impassioned. Evoking a standing ovation from the two dozen or so vets in the Fort Dodge audience, Kerry raised his voice and firmly said: “We will not win the presidency unless we have a nominee who can stand up to George Bush and Karl Rove and Don Rumsfeld and, in the best tradition of FDR and Harry Truman, show that Democrats can defend our nation just as well and better than Republicans!”
Then with what comes as close as possible to gusto in Kerry’s world, he recited what has become his campaign mantra: “If George Bush wants national security to be the issue in November, then I’m your candidate. I have three words that I know even he will understand: BRING — IT — ON!”
Only a few weeks ago, Kerry’s campaign had been pretty much AWOL, presumed dead by much of the media. But Kerry decided to go all-out in Iowa, taking out a mortgage on his mansion to help fuel a sustained push toward the caucuses. He’s the grown-up, adult candidate offering responsible, mature and steady leadership. And, to boot, he argues, his war-hero standing renders him immune to any charges of sushi-lovin’, latte-sippin,’ Volvo-drivin’ weakness. While not flinching from lambasting Bush, Kerry strains to distinguish himself from Howard Dean when he ends his rap by saying, “What we need today is not just anger. What we need are answers.”
Scores of interviews with Kerry supporters confirm the appeal of that message. “I was leaning toward Dean, but I decided to give all the other candidates a hearing before I decided,” said a 46-year-old Des Moines bookkeeper who described herself as a “health-care voter.” “I came over to Kerry because I just found him more believable.
The real Comeback Kid this week is North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Before Christmas, he was floundering at 5 percent in the Iowa polls. With only the most modest of a ground-level organization, and with none of the legions of volunteers fielded by Dean, Kerry or even Gephardt, he exploded into a second-place finish with 32 percent and immediately set off chatter about a possible Kerry-Edwards ticket. Or maybe the other way around?
A telegenic, boyish 50, the self-made millionaire is an enormously personable candidate. Think of him as the Good Bill Clinton. The razor-smart, honey-tongued son of the South, but not covered in Slick Willy’s layer of oil.
It’s not hard to find people who disagree with him, but those who dislike Edwards are scarce. It was breathtaking to watch his support visibly swell in the last handful of days before the caucuses. His events just got bigger and louder and more effusive and electric. This is what “catching fire” really means. By the end of the week, his routine events were drawing overflow crowds infected with an almost evangelical fervor. His efforts were fueled by an unexpected bombshell endorsement from the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s flagship daily.
Edwards drew much of his unpredicted strength from wisely positioning himself as the positive, upbeat “candidate of hope.” While that phrase was designed to set him apart from the more pugnacious Howard Dean, Edwards meticulously avoided attacking or even criticizing any of the other candidates. He reserved his fire for George Bush, and in doing so became increasingly a comfy safe harbor for voters turned off by negative campaigning or leery of Dean’s more bumptious style. “I’m wavering between Edwards and Dean,” said Portia Halferty, a retired public employee, as she listened to Dean campaign in Des Moines. “Dean gets too stressed out. I don’t want someone like that in the White House.”