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    Success of ‘going negative’ changes campaign strategies
    [ # ] Observations From Iowa: 2 Days to Go Before the First Votes of 2008!
    January 2nd, 2008 under Uncategorized

    By Jonathan Earle
    Dole Institute Interim Director

    Some people go to Cancun during winter break, but I couldn’t resist a little political tourism in Iowa, four days in advance of the caucuses this Thursday, Jan. 3. My brother, ace political reporter for the New York Post, is pretty much embedded with the Clinton campaign, so I spent some time acting as his driver and sidekick. That’s why I spent so much time with the Clinton campaign.

    On the way back, I had to pull off the road during an unforecast blizzard – and who should greet me in the McDonald’s in Bethany, MO but Dole staffers Ryan Wing and Clarissa Unger, along with their colleague Jon Simon. All three were on the way to caucus for Obama in Ames, and they kindly shared their company and a nifty board game called Scotland Yard while we waited for the plows to catch up with the precipitation.

    Herewith are some of my observations from the Iowa trail. Enjoy!

    My day began at the mostly-black Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines, where I arrived late for the service, although not as late as Hillary, Chelsea, and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. The Rev. Lee Zachary Maxey had to repeat the part of the service where parishioners meet and greet each other after the Clintons arrived, which gave more than a few worshipers a chance to get a snapshot and exchange some words with the Senator. She was invited to address the assembly, and she did – in a brief version of her stump speech. It was warmly received, and then…Clinton (and the press corps, which included national figures like the Today Show’s Meredith Vieira) left, before the sermon. My brother and I thought this might have been a faux pas, but it turns out Obama left after his remarks at the same church earlier in the month. Still, the deacon called her out a bit, remarking that “it was good to see all the dignitaries here…I wish they’d stayed a little longer.” It was great for this political tourist to be able to stick around and chat with some of the church members, many of whom told me they were first timers planning to caucus for Obama.

    Our next leg took us to the King’s Tower restaurant in Tama, which is unfortunately located on the Old Lincoln Highway, also known as Rt. 30. Clearly building I-80 (about 20 miles to the south) has put Tama’s best days squarely behind it. But the place had a good menu and copious portions. I left room for wild berry pie a-la-mode in nearby Toledo, where I talked to the waitresses about the now-famous incident this fall where Hillary Clinton supposedly stiffed a server at the Maid-Rite diner. The story made the rounds pretty quickly before being proven false (to Geoff Earle’s credit, his story from that day already had the correct information), but we got to the bottom of the scandal. Our 17-year-old server (who plans to caucus for Obama since she’ll be 18 before November ’08) told us a campaign staffer tipped with $100 bill to be divided among the staff – but one waitress bogarted the C-note and didn’t share. Ironically, the waitress who complained about Hillary’s non-tip no longer works there, while the tip-bogarter still does. When asked if she was fired or if she quite, our server said “a little of both.” So much for her 15 minutes of Warholian fame…Only other customers in the joint were two Obama canvassers from St. Louis University. They were sleeping on mattresses in a basement in Traer, our next stop…

    Hillary event #3 of the day, in the municipal building in adorable downtown Traer. The hall had the exact same finished wood beams as the Corinthians church did that morning. Again, Vilsack and Chelsea accompanied the Senator, with Vilsack introducing and Chelsea doing her usual Cheshire Cat impersonation. The crowed loved seeing her though. Hillary’s speech is quite able, and contains several memorable applause lines. She had pretty much emptied it of attacks, only obliquely mentioning the other Democratic candidates. The structure of the speech isn’t a speech in the oratorical sense: it’s a set of bullet points and riffs, and she hits the high notes right on queue. As has become her habit, she did not take questions from the clearly-adoring audience – even though she is quite good at that, too. I think this is a mistake. She is smart and strong on details, and has thought almost everything through. Taking questions and getting off the script could only help her candidacy, and her coverage.

    George Condon of Copley newspapers, who came to the Institute this fall to join Jerry Austin’s study group was there, seated between the Times’ Adam Nagorney and Primary Colors author (and Time columnist) Joe Klein. He even interviewed me for a story on people from states that can’t buy time with presidential candidates who travel to Iowa or New Hampshire as political tourists. I told him to spread the Dole Institute gospel with his neighbors on the press risers. Klein said he’d like to come.

    Next stop: a big Obama rally on the “south side” of Des Moines. Obama was introduced by North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, who marks a stark contrast to the candidate. A 20-year veteran of the Senate and long-time chair of the budget committee, Conrad exudes the wonkishness and Washington experience that Obama’s critics claim he needs. It works: Obama’s a rhetorical racehorse to Conrad’s workhorse. The crowd of 1,000 + in the middle school gymnasium were “fired up” just like Obama said: and just as he promised he addressed the undecideds in the room. His arguments and rhetoric are more classical and logical than Senator Clinton’s: and he has recently added a nifty bit about Bill Clinton’s supposed lack of Washington experience in 1992 to ridicule the Clintons’ claims from 2007. He also gets a big laugh (something you didn’t see much at the Clinton events) about how inside-the-Beltway experts wanted to season, stew, and “boil the hope out of” Obama. He is a master of the peroration and turning what are, frankly, quite effective criticisms on their head. I saw both KC Star political reporter Steve Kraske and former Dole intern Rance Graham Bailey at the event, and both were wowed by the speech and the rally.

    9:30 p.m. on the Sunday before the caucus. Where can you eat in Des Moines? Since Adam Nagorney’s rave review of the restaurant scene, several of the nicer restaurants have really filled up with reporters and political tourists. Such is the case at 801 Grant, a fancy steak house that was busy hustling big hunks of meat to Klein and Terry McAuliffe, chief fundraiser for the Clintons. But the kitchen was closed! Famished, we went on to the old standby “Il Centro.” What a scene! KU and Dole Institute alum CJ Jackson was there. So was an entire table of LA politicos. My college classmate Eric Garcetti (president of the city council) was there, with his dad, former DA Gil Garcetti, both Obama supporters. Joining them was LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a very nice suit. The Washington Post table included 2006 post-election program veteran Dan Balz (who has written my favorite blog entries of the caucus season on The Trail — ) and Chris Cillizza, who writes the Post blog The Fix and accepted my invitation to come to the Institute this spring. Former study group speaker Walter Schapiro was there. Even minor-league celebrities like “Superman Returns” star and Iowa native Brandon Routh, who introduced Obama last night in Indianola.

    Also holding court was David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, striking a Phil Jackson zen-like pose as he answered questions from me and everyone else. He feels good about the campaign, and said he’d like to visit the Institute when things shake out with the campaign. Should be great.

    A final thought or two. There is a definite echo chamber at work covering the candidates. Reporters are generally on buses together all day, and hear the same speeches over and over and over. There is very little news committed, day-to-day, on the Democratic side (the Republicans are locked in a much more negative, angry campaign at the moment – although that could change quickly). Then they all congregate in the same watering holes and restaurants at the end of every day, where they compare stories and eat expensed meals. (Full disclosure: I very much enjoyed my delicious pork chop, generously proffered by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.) It would be very, very hard to buck the horse-race style coverage this type of newsgathering generates, even with some of the best minds in reporting. I hope when the winnowing of the fields occur after Thursday’s caucus and next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, some of these people turn back to deeply covering the issues and ideas these compelling candidates are tossing out.

    Iowans clearly take this process very seriously, and I was impressed with the future caucus-goers I met. But who wouldn’t take a decision this important seriously? Would Kansans or Nevadans blow it all off, watching televised bowling on TV and scarffing pork rinds, a la Homer Simpson? No way. Let’s figure out a way of choosing nominees that takes opinions of big and small states, red and blue states, white and diverse states, rural and urban states EQUALLY SERIOUSLY.

    Let the voting begin…

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