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Under the Iowa Radar 

Hanging with the general’s supporters, and the post-caucus party scene

Thursday, Jan 22 2004
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowans for Clark may be an oddly titled group, considering Clark didn’t run in the Iowa caucuses. Clark had decided to focus on New Hampshire, so it was a surprise to find so many Clark supporters in Iowa City. They had gathered, on their own initiative, to drum up a showing for the general in the caucuses.

“You can caucus for Clark!” Dale Todd exhorted a crowd of about 75 people that spilled out into the hall. This was a recreation center, just on the edge of Iowa City’s downtown, which, like all small-city downtowns on the prairie, with their handsome brick storefronts and gazebos, made me pine for funnel cake and wonder if the Main Street Electrical Parade was about to come around the corner, and that’s not to disparage Iowa City at all, because it is really quite charming. The sounds of pool and Ping-Pong bounced up from the main hall downstairs. Todd, one of the main organizers of Clark’s grassroots movement here, presided. He’s from Cedar Rapids and, as the first African-American elected to his city council, has long been politically active. He joined Draft Clark last summer, and he’s stumped for his man ever since.

There were a lot of questions about how to caucus for Clark. How do we know where to go? Do I have to be 18? Can Clark beat Bush? (“There is a list of precinct locations”; “Yes, but by the time of the November general election”; “We sure think so!”) Some gave testimonials. Others complained about the anti-Clark guff coming from his erstwhile top-brass colleagues. Another supporter, named Robert Bork (not the judge), noted that Michael Moore, the reborn pragmatist, had endorsed Clark. Don’t forget Madonna! someone else added. One woman, walleyed and in a wheelchair because of a stroke, but still razor-sharp and irrepressible, fielded ongoing queries about the caucus rules from newcomers. Another issue that often surfaced was: Why, in fact, did Clark skip Iowa?

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A fair question, considering that when Clark put his toe in these waters on September 19 during a speech at the University of Iowa Law School, just down the street, he drew an unexpectedly large crowd — 1,200 people in a town of 60,000. But some observers, including Dave Nagle, the former congressman from Waterloo, Iowa, who sealed his state’s caucus position as the first in the nation, told Clark he wasn’t ready. Senator Tom Harkin told Clark that he’d need $4 million and 30 days of campaign time in the state to compete. Clark’s campaign decided that to come to Iowa would be to stretch their supply lines.

In addition to Iowans for Clark and Students for Clark, there’s Sodbusters, which began as a bunch of guys who pooled money to buy the list of registered voters in Iowa to start their own phone-bank drive. Sodbusters also raised some money to produce Clark radio spots, which aired last week. Many of these people spent a lot of their own money — Dale Todd maxed out his credit cards — all the while knowing that with Clark polling statewide at 3 or so percent, the chance of topping 15 percent and making Clark viable in even a few precincts was a long shot. Todd was optimistic, hoping that even a small uptick would, in Iowa’s race of expectations, give Clark a little boost going into New Hampshire, where he’s closing the lead.

Why, I asked Todd, is there a grassroots effort for a guy who Dean is calling a Republican in Iowa — especially Iowa City, where the already progressive Iowa Democrats lean even more left?

“It’s not so much his policies, although they’re fine,” Todd explained, “as much as the practical aspects. We want Bush out. Wes is the whole package. He’s the one who can do it.” Across the room was a homemade poster that said, “Clark Ex Machina.”

Toward the end of the event, I was offered some bite-size Clark bars by Rebecca Shier, a student who saw Clark in September and was “smitten.” Who knew they still made Clark bars? I ate five and put three in my pockets. They tasted, I discovered, just like Butterfingers. Kind of like the candidate, the Clark bar is surprisingly similar to the name brands, but in more appealing packaging. We looked at a poster of Clark on the wall. “See how hot he is,” Rebecca said. “What can I do? I’m in love.” She went on to say that Clark will win New Hampshire, and beat George Bush. “He can, and will,” she enthused. “I think Clark’s the Messiah.” We shall see. In the end, Clark drew less than 1 percent of the vote in Iowa.

The Kerry Miracle

When the clock struck seven, you could hear the sound of chairs sliding as the 53 caucus-goers of Precinct 44 in Des Moines started moving into their respective corners. It was clear the four-man race was on. It was also clear that Dean was in trouble. We were at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in a middle- to working-class neighborhood north of downtown Des Moines. The room was diverse. After some deal making — the precinct chair for Edwards, whose below-the-radar campaign surfaced straight out of the water like a submarine in the past three days, lured over some undecideds as well as the Kucinich people — the caucus chair gave the official count: “Edwards, two delegates; Gephardt, one; Dean, one.”

Dean’s group almost didn’t get a delegate at all, and probably wouldn’t have had Kerry’s precinct chair not been AWOL, leaving his supporters in the lurch. In the end, Kerry’s five core people adamantly chose to remain uncounted rather than stand in another candidate’s corner. Jim, the volunteer observer from Kerry’s campaign who was there (and preferred to be referred to by his first name), said, “Can you believe this? We’re gonna win this thing, and we can’t even get a delegate in this room?”

An hour later, when Jim’s prediction was coming more true than he imagined, I ran into him at the ballroom of the Hotel Fort Des Moines, where Kerry’s victory party was held. “See?” he said, drink in hand and smiling. “What did I tell you? I can’t believe it!”

Dean’s Wake

At Dean’s party across town, the crowd was remarkably upbeat considering the significant defeat their man had just suffered. As usual, the Dean scene was cooler but less convincing as the backbone of an effective campaign — more like a party than a political event. They were at the hippest venue in town: the Val Air in West Des Moines, a great old open-air ballroom with a maple hardwood dance floor that opened in 1937 to accommodate the big bands like Glenn Miller’s when they came through town. The Perfect Storm Troopers were everywhere, all immediately identifiable by their bright-orange hats. Everyone was drinking. Many Dean staffers were wondering where they’d go next. Others knew already, and were saying goodbyes. A few had been crying. As the room thinned, the place had the bittersweet feeling of summer camp coming to an end. Unless Dean can keep his shrinking lead in an Indian summer in New Hampshire, many of the people at the Val Air will never see each other again.

“Looks like Joe Trippi had his head up his ass,” said one Iowa Democratic legislator as the dance floor got cold. “He was on Fox yesterday saying that his organization was worth three or four points that the polls weren’t showing. The follow-up question should have been: ‘Yeah — in what direction?’”

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