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.

By contrast, the Dean rally the next day at Marshalltown Community College felt listless. The oft-repeated claim that the Dean campaign is attracting hordes of new voters didn't seem evident here. There were plenty of college kids on hand, the much-vaunted Deanie Babies wearing hunter-orange "Perfect Storm" knit caps. But then again, college kids are always attracted to upstart presidential campaigns.

The two rallies did have one thing in common: The majority of those in attendance weren't from Marshalltown. In large part, that reflects the real purpose of such events--which, beyond supplying the obligatory photo ops, includes whipping up the army of volunteer door-knockers who have come from other states to boost their candidate's chances. But the reliance on out-of-towners also demonstrated the larger quandary of the Democratic Party in communities like Marshalltown.

On a strictly demographic basis, Marshalltown ought to be a Democratic stronghold. It isn't, and one reason is the party's relative lack of success in appealing to natural constituencies. Consider the Latinos. In the last decade, the Latino population in Marshall County has grown tenfold. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of talk of drawing Latinos into the caucuses. But the civic participation among Latinos in Iowa has yet to blossom; the state doesn't have a single Hispanic legislator, and voter participation among Latinos is notoriously low. Which may explain why the Latinos for Dean placard at the Marshalltown rally was passed around like a hot potato among various decidedly non-Latino rally-goers.

Back at the Bookmark, Betty Stotser said she has yet to see a single Mexican person at any of the rallies or other political events she regularly attends. Maybe that will change as Marshalltown's newest citizens become more acculturated, she hypothesized. But meantime, more young people need to become involved for the Democrats to have a chance in the area. And that doesn't seem to be happening.

At the Diner, an inexpensive restaurant located just down Main Street from Stotser's store, the caucus season isn't the subject of much conversation. At first blush, Erin McBride--a 21-year-old single mom who works as a waitress there--would seem to be a good target voter for any Democratic candidate.

But to McBride, the campaign sounds like so much static. She chooses to tune it out. Like many younger voters, her apathy about politics seems attributable to a combination of willful ignorance and justifiable cynicism.

"It's just like wrestling. All the candidates are in training, just like the wrestlers. Some are short, some are tall, some have loud voices, some have annoying voices," she said. "But I really don't think it makes any difference who is president."

At that point, a much older waitress chimes in with her two cents on the campaign. "It's just a bunch of guys tooting their own horns."

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