San Diego Union Tribune

November 25, 2007

Big crowds for Clinton, but will they vote?


/ Associated Press
Mary Worden-Fiedler posed with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, yesterday.
bullet Road to White House: Where they stand

VINTON, Iowa – Mike Hotz is a staunch Democrat who wants everybody to know how much he supports Hillary Rodham Clinton in her bid to be president. He likes her ideas, likes her experience and likes the way she is campaigning.

“I'll spread the word for her,” said the 48-year-old welder of highway equipment as he waited for the Democratic senator from New York to enter the packed gym at Tilford Elementary School.

But he won't be doing what matters most – he does not plan to go to his Democratic precinct caucus the night of Jan. 3 to actually vote for her. “Probably not,” he said. “I've never gone to a caucus.”

Hotz is Clinton's biggest challenge, a reason she could just as easily finish third in the Iowa caucuses as finish first. Interviews with Iowans at recent Clinton events suggest he is not alone. Many people who were so excited to see the former first lady and so willing to cheer her and have their pictures taken with her also admitted to uncertainty about going to the caucuses.

“I'm here because she's like a rock star and I wanted to see her,” said Rex Mulvaney, 53, a carpenter who often nodded in agreement as Clinton made her pitch. But he said he is undecided about going to his caucus. Mulvaney is still weighing supporting one of her two top rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

If this were simply an election, there would be little of this ambivalence. But the Iowa caucuses require a real commitment of time. Attendance means fighting for a parking space on what could be a typically blustery January night, surviving almost an hour of preliminary registration and then standing in a group committed to your candidate for possibly another hour while neighbors try to persuade you to move to their corner of the room to pledge to their candidate.



“The evidence in the polling that we've done is that the supporters of Clinton and Obama are less likely to have caucused in the past, which makes them less likely to caucus this time,” said David Redlawsk, director of the University of Iowa Poll.

“People are excited for Clinton,” he said. “Both Clinton and Obama are drawing very large crowds, but they are drawing what we call the 'caucus curious' rather than those who are experienced in caucusing. So the key is can they actually convert these people to real caucus-goers?”

If Clinton can do that, she could win the caucuses and cement her position as national front-runner among the Democrats. But the past record of candidates counting on first-time caucus-goers is not encouraging.

“We have a fair amount of work to do,” acknowledged JoDee Winterhof, senior strategist for the Clinton campaign in Iowa. She said the campaign has to deal with what she called “a fact of life” that a majority of the Clinton supporters in Iowa are newcomers to the caucus process.

“We're working hard to demystify the process,” she said.

In the final month, the candidate herself will be spearheading that effort and will be almost a constant presence in the state.

Clinton started at a disadvantage in Iowa because it is the only important early primary or caucus state where her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had no real campaign operation. She had to start from scratch.

“The Clinton folks were clearly ambivalent about doing Iowa in the first place,” said Redlawsk, who four years ago was Johnson County Democratic chairman during the caucuses. “Now we can understand why they might have been. If she, by some shock, finishes third, it's going to be very hard for Clinton to brush that off.”

But Redlawsk praised the campaign operation she has assembled. “She was slow to get active. She was slow to spend time. But now she's running a perfectly strong campaign. She's got a ton of staff. She's hiring more.”

The latest polls indicate that Clinton and Obama are in a virtual tie, with Edwards only slightly behind. The newest Washington Post-ABC News poll confirmed the candidates' caucus hurdle – about half of Clinton's supporters and 43 percent of Obama's said they had never been to one. And in a potentially troubling sign for Clinton, that poll showed a possible shift, with more Iowans looking for newness – Obama's appeal – over experience – Clinton's appeal.

The closeness explains Clinton's willingness last week to more openly challenge Obama, particularly on his experience. She tweaked Obama for his statement that he has a better understanding of foreign policy because he lived in a foreign country when he was a child.

“Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face,” said Clinton at a stop in Shenandoah.

It is a pitch that works with the Iowans attending her events. Again and again, they volunteered that they liked her experience as first lady and senator.

“When her husband was president, my wife and I owned a house, we had two new cars and we both had great jobs,” said Hotz, the welder. “As soon as we brought the Republicans in, we lost our house, we had to get rid of our cars and our jobs had changed. The price of gas has gone up. The cost of energy has gone up. We need the Democrats back in, and we need her experience.”

Keith Anderson, 62, a retired parks worker, praised Clinton's experience at a separate event in Knoxville, south of Des Moines. “She's been in Washington. She knows how to play ball. She knows who the good guys and the bad guys are by now.”

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