Union Tribune

January 19, 2004

Campaign dead heat for Iowa caucuses

By GEORGE E. CONDON JR. and TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

DES MOINES, Iowa One of the closest campaigns in Iowa history raced to the finish line yesterday with four candidates still locked in a tight contest and the emphasis shifting from speeches and rallies to the less glamorous, door-to-door work that always makes such a big difference in a state with caucuses.

On the eve of the caucuses, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards continued to surge but supporters of Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean were banking heavily on their strong organizations to put them over the top.

As usual, the candidates were in the spotlight, crisscrossing the state and pleading with their supporters to go tonight to the farmhouses, schools, American Legion halls and private homes where almost 2,000 caucuses will give one of the contenders a boost in the crowded field.

But yesterday, the real stars were the workers behind the scenes and on the streets the orange-hatted "Deaniacs," the pizza-eating Edwards backers, the union card-carrying Gephardt partisans and the sleep-deprived Kerry supporters.

If Iowa held a primary election, there is little disagreement that Kerry and Edwards would be odds-on favorites to spring a major surprise and walk away with the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

But Iowa's caucuses are an elaborate, often-confusing exercise in participatory democracy that requires voters to find out where their caucus meets and then devote up to three hours to declaring allegiance to a candidate.

First, a voter must declare a preference and may be asked to publicly defend the choice. Then the caucus participants separate into groups under the banner of each candidate. If a group does not meet the "threshold" of at least 15 percent, then voters in that group must choose another candidate. Finally, the delegates are apportioned and results called in to party headquarters in Des Moines.

The process that puts a premium on a campaign's ability to identify its supporters, get them to the caucus and make sure they stand in the correct group and woo voters forced to resort to their second choice.

Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack predicted that the turnout is likely to be double that of the 2000 caucuses and could top 120,000.

As they have been all week, four candidates were statistically inseparable in the latest survey taken by pollster John Zogby for MSNBC and Reuters. Kerry led with 24 percent, followed by Dean at 23 percent, Gephardt at 19 percent and Edwards at 18 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percent.

Gephardt began the day at a steelworkers union hall in Des Moines, where he and union leaders including Teamsters President James P. Hoffa urged supporters to ignore the latest Des Moines Register poll that showed him running fourth, plummeting from his one-time perch atop the poll.

The Missouri congressman predicted victory, contending, "My supporters are probably the most committed of any candidate's supporters, and they're going to come out, and I believe we're going to win this thing."

Dean's campaign was similarly confident because of its labor support and his volunteers from other states. Dean's media adviser Steve McMahon yesterday said that the polls are "largely irrelevant."

Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said, "At this point, the caucuses are not about the polls. It's really about organize, organize, organize, get out the vote, get out the vote, get out the vote."

Both Gephardt and Dean have spent the last two years coming up with lists of supporters pledged to go to the caucuses.

For Gephardt, that means 250,000 phone calls over the final weekend, a number eclipsed by the calls claimed by the Dean forces.

Such an effort has not gone unnoticed by the two surging candidates trying to spoil the celebrations planned by Dean and Gephardt.

"There are very strong organizations on the other side," acknowledged Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who said the Massachusetts senator hopes to counter the labor backing with some local endorsements, the support of the firefighters union and Cahill hopes the votes of up to 10,000 veterans.

Kerry's campaign said it had more than 1,000 organizers, including 800 veterans who were making calls to fellow veterans on Kerry's behalf.

They are people like Bill Baker, 55, a Vietnam veteran who came here from Boston to work the phones for Kerry, a decorated veteran of that war.

"There's a common thread to veterans of any war," Baker said, standing outside a Kerry event in Des Moines on Saturday. Inside, Kerry had an emotional reunion with another veteran, Jim Rassman, who said Kerry saved his life during combat on the Bay Hap River.

"He's gonna get my vote," said Rassman, who said he normally votes Republican. "After watching him in the Senate all these years, I have no doubt he's going to make an excellent president."

Kerry's campaign also is counting on strong support from thousands of volunteer firefighters. Kerry was endorsed by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

One Edwards aide said the North Carolina senator had "thousands" of local volunteers and "hundreds" from out of state who came to help, but he declined to give more specific numbers.

"Every other candidate is spending more than we are and Dean and Gephardt have the unions," Edwards spokeswoman Kim Rubey said.

With the race so close, Dean gambled that he would benefit from leaving the state for most of the day to be seen with and praised by former President Carter in Carter's hometown of Plains, Ga.

Carter stopped short of endorsing Dean, but praised his stands on the issues, particularly his opposition to the Iraq war.

"I have made an announcement in advance that I'm not going to endorse any particular candidate. But I have been particularly grateful at the courageous and outspoken posture and position that Gov. Dean has taken from the very beginning," said Carter, who scored a surprise victory in the 1976 Iowa caucuses and remains a popular figure in the state.

From here, the campaign shifts rapidly to New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held eight days later. Waiting there for the Iowa candidates will be Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who both skipped the caucuses.

Clark yesterday collected the endorsement of former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972.

Even though Clark has said that he voted for former President Nixon that year, McGovern praised Clark as "the best Democrat" in the race.

Appearing with Clark at a pancake breakfast in Keene, McGovern, who lost in a landslide to Nixon, added, "He is a true progressive. He's the Democrat's Democrat. I've been around the political block, and I can tell you I know a true progressive when I see one. And that's why he has my vote."

The Clark campaign welcomed McGovern's backing because of attacks from rivals citing the general's votes for Nixon and former President Reagan. Dean recently claimed that Clark is a closet Republican.

Copley News Service correspondent Finlay Lewis in Keene, N.H., contributed to this report.