/ Associated Press
Mary Worden-Fiedler posed with Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton at a campaign stop in Sioux
City, Iowa, yesterday.
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
“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.
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
“We're working hard to demystify the process,” she
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.”