Greetings from Marshalltown

Where the campaigning was frenzied, the voters worried, and the outlook bleak

In the week before the Iowa caucus, anyone who spent time in the state figured out in a hurry that you couldn't swing a dead pollster without whacking a Democratic presidential candidate. It didn't matter where you went. Either Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards, or Kucinich (and, save for Kucinich, their considerable entourages) would eventually come barnstorming through town, whereupon they made the usual vows about saving the economy, giving everyone health insurance, and "taking America back."

For the roughly four percent of Iowans who could be bothered to participate in the hallowed national ritual--the Winnowing of the Few by the People of the Corn--all the attention may have been flattering. For just about everyone else, it was a nuisance.

By all accounts, the campaigning in Iowa this year was more intense than at any time in memory. The barrage of television advertisements was particularly relentless; the candidates were estimated to have collectively spent an estimated $100 per vote on TV alone--no mean feat in a state where airtime is so cheap. The campaigns also engaged in unprecedented mass-mailing operations. In one new wrinkle, this year's circulars, which stacked up like cordwood in the mailboxes of every registered Democrat in Iowa, were printed on 7-by-11 inch glossy stock.

To most folks, however, that wanton assault on the forests was less annoyance than the daily barrage of phone calls from campaign workers.

"I suppose I've averaged three calls a day for the last few weeks," said Betty Stotser, the owner of the Bookmark, a used paperback store in Marshalltown, a working-class factory and meatpacking town of about 26,000.

All those calls were a bit much even for Stotser, who herself did phone work for both the Gephardt and Kerry campaigns. As the caucuses drew near, Stotser observed, a lot of people she spoke with said they had yet to commit to a candidate. Stotser only settled on Kerry earlier in the week. His military service in Vietnam was a critical factor.

For Stotser, a lifelong Democrat and retired schoolteacher, the looming presidential contest is a "landmark election," the most consequential since the dawn of the Cold War.

With polls showing a virtual four-way dead heat, the competition for likely caucus-goers was fierce in Marshalltown, where Democrats are an especially scarce commodity. (The Republican dominance of the city is so great that the head of the local Democratic Party makes a point of stopping by Stotser's store whenever he walks down Main Street. "He'll open the door and say, 'I just wanted to make sure you're still here.' We're outnumbered," Stotser said with a laugh.)

The tight competition has meant that the slightest misstep by candidates took on added weight--and provided extra impetus for opposition researchers to work their dark craft. "I can't recall where the candidates went after each other the way they did in this campaign. If you watched the debates, you saw they weren't bashing Bush. They were bashing Dean," Stotser observed.

Indeed, in the week leading up to the caucus, the majority of the attacks focused on the presumptive front runner. Dean's poll numbers eroded steadily after dismissive comments he made about the Iowa caucuses four years ago were unearthed and publicized. It didn't help that the remarks--which included Dean's fundamentally correct observation that the caucuses are dominated by special interests--were repeatedly mischaracterized in the state's largest paper, the Des Moines Register. On the Thursday before the election, the Register ran a front-page correction noting that the paper had for four days running erroneously reported that Dean called the caucuses "a waste of time."

Nonetheless, for caucus-goers like Stotser, to whom Iowa's system is a sacrament of democracy, Dean had committed a heresy. But Stotser objected to something more elemental, and less subject to rehabilitation, than the doctor's impolitic opinion about the caucuses. It's his manner, she said: "He seems to me a man of arrogance. I like a person that's willing to listen. I don't think Dean's a listener. He wants to tell." Iowans like to see humility, real or otherwise, in their candidates. With his ramrod posture and off-the-cuff New York delivery, Dean did not meet that need.

In communities like Marshalltown, Dean's most distinctive policy position--his early and outspoken opposition to the Iraq war--carries less weight than worries about the economy. Like the rest of the dwindling number of Midwestern cities where manufacturing remains an economic mainstay, Marshalltown has seen a steady disappearance of good jobs in recent years. Factories have moved to Mexico, and people constantly worry that the remaining ones will head south soon. Meanwhile, the local meatpacking plant, which once provided workers with comfortable working-class lives, increasingly relies on the town's burgeoning population of Mexicans. Consequently, free trade agreements and immigration policy are the issues Democrats here talk about most. Locally, that would appear to favor Gephardt, who has strong union credentials and myriad union endorsements.

Late last week, both Gephardt and Dean came storming through Marshalltown. Of the two rallies, Gephardt's predictably generated more heat. It was an event constructed entirely for news cameras, but there was a genuine spark in the proceedings. Gephardt arrived in a gleaming customized 18-wheeler, part of a long procession of horn-blowing big rigs that delivered the various eminences to the Best Western where the rally was held. Jimmy Hoffa Jr. showed up in another truck that featured a spectacularly gaudy airbrushed portrait of the son and his more famous father.

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