January 6, 2004
Iowa seen as first, last shot for some
Democratic foes sharpen attacks against Dean
By GEORGE E. CONDON
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
DES MOINES, Iowa – Time is running out for Jerry Overman if he wants to meet all nine Democratic presidential contenders before Iowa holds its caucuses. And, with those caucuses 13 days away, time is also running out on most of those candidates if they hope to use Iowa to stop Howard Dean from running away with the race before most Americans start paying attention to it.
Overman, an avid Democrat, has been paying attention for some time and has met four candidates and spent some time discussing the contest with former President Bill Clinton.
Not bad for a 46-year-old who runs a heating and air conditioning business here, a self-described "average Joe" who wants his president "to look out for us ordinary common working men."
Only in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two small states that provide the first tests for the candidates, can average voters wait to make up their minds until after personally meeting and quizzing the politicians who want to be president of the United States.
Overman figures he has met Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt "at least half a dozen times" and despite plummeting temperatures and the threat of snow outside, he was spending his Saturday night in a cramped college theater here waiting for a another visit.
Even before that meeting, he had decided to cast his caucus vote for the Missouri congressman because "he's the kind of guy you can sit down and have a beer with and talk about your problems. He's one of us."
Support like this makes Gephardt the slight favorite to win Iowa on Jan. 19, just as he did when he ran for president in 1988. But Gephardt's hold on the top rung is tenuous and former Vermont Gov. Dean is making a strong run to overtake him.
Only Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are given a chance for strong showings in Iowa, although North Carolina Sen. John Edwards keeps promising a surprise. And their anxiety levels have been raised noticeably with each national poll showing Dean pulling away and with each financial report showing him far surpassing their contribution totals.
That anxiety shows itself in the ferocity of the attacks being made on Dean. Both Gephardt and Kerry have begun raising questions about Dean's temperament, lack of foreign policy experience and tendency to shoot from the hip with statements he later has to amend.
But Dean could survive a loss here, with the campaign moving swiftly from the Midwest to New Hampshire, where he has built up a big lead for the primary that follows one week later.
For Gephardt, though, the stakes are enormous. Anything short of first place will be considered fatal and Dean's strategists are determined to go for the kill here.
"The pressure is all on the challengers," said Dean's Iowa press secretary Sarah Leonard, who said Kerry has almost as much to prove here as does Gephardt.
"They're in the fight for their lives. If Gephardt doesn't win Iowa, he's going home," she said.
Because of those stakes, Leonard predicted even more harsh attacks on Dean in the next 13 days. "They're going to throw everything at us," she said.
One thing that all the campaigns agree on is while Americans in most large states are only vaguely aware of the campaign, Iowa voters are tuned in and paying attention. The intensity of the campaign has clearly ratcheted up – in part because political advertising on television and radio is almost inescapable.
Dean, who is expected to receive the endorsement of former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey today, announced yesterday he's throwing another statewide 30-second ad on the Iowa airwaves. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study last month showed Dean had inundated those airwaves with 2,500 ads that cost $1 million – more than any other candidate has been able to afford.
Close behind has been long shot Edwards, just under $1 million for 2,500 ads; then Kerry at $975,000 for 2,000 spots and Gephardt at $750,000 for 1,900 ads.
"I'm doing a lot of phone banking. People are definitely hearing the message now. They're paying attention now," said Mike Mathis, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 164, a factory worker.
"There is a rhythm here of it not really getting serious or intense until the holidays," said Steve Murphy, national campaign manager for Gephardt. "So much is happening so fast immediately after the holidays because there is such a short time left."
Most of the activity in 2003 was below the radar screen except for a string of nationally televised debates, most of which were frustrating to the major candidates because they were forced to share the stage – and the air time – with less-serious candidates.
Two debates remain before the caucuses. Today, the candidates will hold the only radio debate of the campaign, appearing on National Public Radio from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then, on Sunday, they'll debate issues important to African-Americans and Latinos.
Some candidates are counting on the renewed voter interest and heightened activity to shuffle the deck and bring Dean down to earth.
"In the last five weeks, everything becomes amplified and heightened," said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who isn't competing actively in Iowa. "There will be wild shifts in support just as there were in past campaigns."
At the Dean campaign, Leonard said the campaign is adjusting to the fact "Iowans are really tuning in now."
The new year brings a shift in tactics, with 3,500 volunteers about to flow into the state from across the country. "We've been organizing for a year," she said. "Now, we mobilize the organization."
Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.