Caucus candidates campaign in Burlington


By Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg


It was Saturday in Burlington, Iowa and three, count'em, three presidential candidates visited town.. Five days and the last weekend before the Iowa caucuses and “retail politics” dominate the campaign. For the presidential wannabes who haven't written off this first official test of the 2008 campaign season time is running out and they all know that in ten days the field of candidates will be significantly reduced.

On the Democratic side three candidates are in a statistical dead-heat in the polls, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are pulling out all stops for an Iowa win. Meanwhile Chris Dodd continues his apparently fruitless quest here; Bill Richardson and Joe Biden continue to run television ads and make Iowa appearances to small crowds while looking forward to the potential of a miracle in New Hampshire to keep their campaigns afloat. The long shot progressive and stridently anti-Iraq War candidate Dennis Kucinich began telling his supporters to caucus for Obama on New Year's Day as he reads the Iowa tea leaves.

Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are battling fiercely in what just a few weeks ago appeared to be a a gimme for Romney. Fred Thompson is stumbling about the state in relative obscurity, so obscure that he too was in Burlington on Saturday but The Zephyr didn't learn about the appearance until it was long over. Meanwhile cult-favorite Ron Paul continues his status as the most unique libertine Republican candidate. Rudy Giuliani's strategy largely ignores Iowa and places only minimal effort in New Hampshire but even he made appearances in Iowa Saturday while John McCain has more completely ignored Iowa and is betting the ranch on that first primary and a string of recent newspaper endorsements-- including the Des Moines Register.

The political morning in Burlington started early as Obama held an enthusiastic rally in the Pzazz Convention and Event Center to a standing-room only crowd of upwards of 600. The room is adjacent to the Catfish Bend Casino and was a last minute change from the auditorium of Notre Dame High School when officials of the Catholic archdiocese overruled the earlier decision of local high school officials reportedly due to Obama's pro-choice position on abortion. One could come to consider presidential politics and religion as other means of gambling.

The Obama event was well organized and attracted a Democratic crowd of typical working- and middle-class Iowans with an over-representation of women. One of those woman was Pamela Johnson who acknowledged being a committed Obama supporter. “He's less like your typical politician and more like a regular person. He's incredibly smart and caring and listening to him speak won me over.”

Ned Fry of West Burlington described Obama as, “Inspiring, not unlike [former president John F.] Kennedy but even more of the people. There is an incredible energy that you can feel when he walks into a room and it only gets that much stronger when he begins speaking. Obama cares about the regular guy and shares our suspicion of politics in Washington. He won't forget the importance of the problems in this country and he won't sell out to big money interests either.”

Before the speeches began I had the opportunity to speak to a good number of the people attending the rally. I would estimate that two-thirds to three-fourths of those present were already committed Obama supporters. A number of people identified themselves as independent voters who see Obama as a refreshing change. As the candidate himself later pointed our during his speech, two of the key goals of rallies such as this is to identify (a) committed Obama supporters who can be “encouraged” to caucus for Obama Thursday night FOR Obama and (b) undecided voters and independents who can be won over with some additional discussion of Obama's strengths and virtues as a candidate.

Historically turnout at Iowa caucuses is less than spectacular. Only a select few are so committed that they will devote two hours of their time and publicly declare their support for a presidential candidate before the neighbors. Obama's organization, as well as that of Hillary Clinton, are working hard to get their supporters who otherwise would not participate out on caucus night. The plan of the John Edwards Iowa team is a bit different, they have focused their attention on winning over the hearts and minds of committed caucus veterans to Edwards camp. Iowa Democratic party officials are expecting much higher than typical turnout due to the efforts of the Obama and Clinton campaigns but severe winter temperatures and snow could well serve as a potent counterbalance.

Once onsite after 6:30pm on Thursday the doors at each caucus site are locked at 7pm and participants are asked to sit or stand in a group with the other supporters of each candidate. Iowa Democratic Party rules mandate that no candidate with less than 15 percent of the voters present is considered “viable.” Once the room is counted and the viability number determined supporters of “non-viable” candidates must either win over additional support to reach viability or, more likely, be won over by the viable candidates in their precinct. In this way a voter's second choice candidate becomes very important to the outcome of the caucus. Marginal and minor candidates will come away with no support in that precinct.

In this way it becomes clear just how important a candidate's campaign organization is to their success in the Iowa Democratic caucus battle. Not only is it important to get your supporters out to caucus but each organization must have a strong precinct captain and a convincing argument to win over the second choice caucus goers. None of this political intrigue matters much in the Republican Party Caucus as the merely report the raw number of supporter who show up and declare a candidate preference without any respect to “viability.” In this respect the only difference between the Iowa Republican caucus and a primary is the absence of a secret ballot and a specified time to cast your ballot.

Freshman Congressman Dave Leobsack-D was an early and enthusiastic Obama supporter and praised Obama's early anti-war stance and positive campaign for change in our nation's capital. His brief warm-up speech was followed by Obama's introduction by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Patrick's origins were on Chicago's southside where he came to know the Illinois junior Senator as a young lawyer and community activist. The presence of two African-American politician's was notable as there were but a few other minorities sprinkled in the crowd. The relative lack of diversity along with the rural nature of Iowa are two of the reasons this state can hardly be considered a representative indicator of any presidential candidate's true level of national support.

 Leobsack is an Iowa native and speaks like the academic he was when he upset Republican Jim Leach who had served Iowa's second district in Congress for 30 years. Patrick was only a marginally better speaker but he had no problem winning over a crowd that wanted to get excited about Obama. “The current administration has been ineffective in foreign policy and absent in domestic policy. Senator Obama is the right man for the right reasons right now! ...When you close your eyes and imaging the kind of leadership we need you know the image that comes to mind is Barack Obama.”

When Obama himself got to the podium he apologized for a slightly faltering voice and then went on to give another great speech. There is no doubt that few candidate's of either party can compare to Obama as a speaker even when all he does is repeat the oft repeated points of his campaign that have been heard ad nauseum via television commercials in a speech that was too long at over 50 minutes. Obama spent a significant amount of time attempting to counter arguments put forth by others regarding his electability and experience without pointing out that nearly all of Clinton's experience came in the role of First Lady. Of course there are far more experienced hands in this race than any of the three Democratic front runners who are gaining no traction in this campaign.

Obama undeniably has presence and political sense. He showed both by a genuine self-deprecating humor and through his recognition of key campaign volunteers in Des Moines County, Iowa. At one point he invited his two key local organizers on stage and asked the assembled crowd to raise their hands if they were still undecided. Obama then told the two young men to note who raised their hands and “get to work.” As moving as his speech was Obama offered few specifics as he described his plans for America in broad strokes to many cheers from the assembled crowd.

Burlington was just the first of six eastern Iowa campaign stops for Obama on Saturday and when he finished and finally left for his next stop in Fort Madison he was already behind schedule. At the other end of the day Romney and his wife and high school sweetheart Ann made an evening appearance in Burlington at the country club. Eschewing his suit and tie for a sweater and slacks (apparently for the first time in this campaign) Romney arrived with a comparatively small entourage to speak before an enthusiastic crowd that was much larger than expected by his organization.

The country club's ice covered parking lot was nearly full and extra chairs were hastily assembled in the banquet room to accommodate over 100 supporters. Romney and his wife arrived only a few minutes late and were introduced by a Burlington Methodist preacher who was a less than polished speaker despite many years in the pulpit. As a couple the Romneys and natural campaigners. Both are bright and articulate if not emotionally compelling speakers and their affection for one another and their family is plainly evident.

Romney's campaign message is simple and straightforward and contains very few details. “I believe the strength of America lies in the strength of her people. I am running for President because I want to keep America strong. That means a strong military, strong economy, and strong families. We are facing many challenges, but America has always overcome these challenges in the past, and I am confident that we can do so again.”

Romney supports the Bush Iraq policy although not as stridently as John McCain while he seeks to escape his record as a relatively moderate Massachusetts governor as he reaches out to the social and religious right of the Republican party. His message was warmly received by those who filled the county club banquet room and politely applauded in all the right places. This wasn't a stereotypical “country club crowd” but rather a more socially conservative group that wasn't about to challenge anything Romney said but weren't keen to speak to the press about their political beliefs either. To my eye these were exactly the same Iowa voters Mike Huckabee is working so hard to win over in Thursday night's caucus.

Both Obama and Romney were effective at their respective events but the scales were very different and Obama attracted nearly five times the number of Romney. As people left both events campaign staff were present to hand out literature, sign-up prospective caucus goers and distribute bumper stickers and yard signs. As the crowd thinned after the Obama morning event there was nothing left on the tables and some left empty handed while lots of Romney campaign material and yard signs remained after everyone had left his rally.